Saturday, August 30, 2008

EnTEENtainment Weakly does it again

I've been a little down on Entertainment Weekly lately, what with its new unofficial motto ("More pics, less words!") and its increasingly shallow content. Could the mag recover from its recent embarrassment of hyping Harry Potter with its Fall Movie Preview cover? Well, this week's ish is out, and it spotlights...

An "exclusive interview" with Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty from the new "90210."

First, let me say that I'm already sick of this series, and it hasn't even aired yet. It's practically September, there are dozens of new crappy TV series on the way, yet the only one I'm hearing anything about is this one. If a "90210" revival is the most interesting thing in the new TV season, well, then I guess I'll be catching up on my DVDs this fall.

As for "EW," I'll bet you a Peach Pit milkshake that a sizable chunk of the current staff grew up on the original "Beverly Hills 90210" and retains fond memories. Still, the magazine should ease up a bit. Its obsession with this show isn't quite as annoying as its love for "Gossip Girl" or its faux love-hate relationship with "The Hills," but that's only because we haven't seen "90210" yet and can therefore only guess how bad IT is.

I don't know if there's a connection between the attention to this show and the fact that the same parent company owns both "EW" and the CW network (such a connection apparently didn't prevent the mag from making a fool of itself with the Potter cover just as the movie was being pushed to next July), but you have to wonder. At a time when rumors are buzzing that the "network" is on its way out and stations like my own affiliate are rebranding themselves to remove the CW stigma, one outlet hasn't received the memo. "Entertainment Weekly" seems even more passionate about the CW's survival than the teenage female readership it's apparently cultivating.

I have yet to open the issue, and if the Doherty-Garth interview turns out to be a groundbreaking analysis of the show's prospects and those of the CW as a whole, then I might apologize. But I don't think it's going to amount to much more than a wasted cover and another bit of fluff promoting another "hip" show for the young demo.

This Week in DVD

What Happens in Vegas: Ah, seeing this on the release list makes me smile Oh, it's not the movie itself, though I am amused by the ads which make it evident that someone decided showing Cameron Diaz in her underwear was the best way to sell the DVD. It's the thought that the movie that kicked off the Crummy Movie Cavalcade is already on video. Uh, wait. Speaking of the Cavalcade...well, I've got some catching up to do with that, OK?

Redbelt: David Mamet meets mixed martial arts in my personal Must Rent of the week. I would say MMA should have more shocking twists, elaborate cons, and verbal pyrotechnics, but then I guess it would be boxing.

Three Stooges Volume 3: Hey, I still have to get Volume 2! No complaints, though, as Sony has set a blazing pace for these chronological, comprehensive collections, with number 4 due in early October!

Color Honeymooners Season 4: I really don't want to complain about MPI releasing these, but I'm kind of hoping they get them out ASAP so that they can go back and do a proper release of the original B&W Lost Episodes.

Legend of the Lone Ranger: I have vague memories of this being promoted heavily when I was a young'un. I remember seeing a bunch of ads somewhere, whether it be in the comics I was reading or maybe magazines or whatever. Of course, this 1981 update of the classic character flopped. My recollection is that I was somehow aware the flick was a turkey even as I saw all the ads, and since the world wasn't as box office crazy back then, this must have been quite the stinker indeed. I still have never seen the whole thing, but maybe Lions Gate has put together a DVD package that will shed new light on this one, perhaps revealing it as a neglected gem which was unfairly panned in its time.

Nope. The DVD is pan-and-scan, and that tells you pretty much all you need to know about what Lions Gate thinks of the movie. Actually, it tells you a lot about Lions Gate, too, but never mind that. Don't expect a retrospective documentary putting the film in context, either, although that could have been a fascinating piece of work. Expect nothing, 'cause that's what you're getting.

Westerns Galore: As if "Legend" weren't enough, Warner Brothers makes it a big week for oater fans (Sorry, but I try to use "oater" whenever I can) with several box sets. The "Western Classics Collection" is a hodgepodge of catalogue titles like "Escape to Fort Bravo," while the "Errol Flynn: The Warner Brothers Westerns Collection" proves the legend was more than just a swashbuckler. I'll cop to not having seen most of these movies. All I can say is WB looks to have put a heck of a lot more effort into the Flynn collection, loading it with features, while its other set makes us settle for trailers.

I'm impressed that Flynn apparently does well on DVD. He may not have as high a profile as some of the other Warner legends of his era, but he's clearly "still got it," as Ralph Malph would say. And now that I just mentioned Ralph Malph in the same breath as Errol Flynn, I'm outta here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pearl Harbor as a source of comedy?

I recently watched "Don Juan Quilligan," a modest comedy from FOX with William Bendix, Joan Blondell, and Phil Silvers. Bendix is a sailor who sort of inadvertently marries two women, then tries to get out of his predicament by faking his own death. It's a decent enough way to pass an hour and 20 minutes so, but never more than that, and Silvers is in his tame sidekick mode of the 1940s, not his "comic force of nature mode" he would get to unleash later.

Something that stands out to me is when Silvers and Bendix are trying to figure out how to get out of the revoltin' development (apologies to Chester A. Riley). They find out that Pearl Harbor has just been attacked by the Japanese, and Silvers basically says, "Great! Now you can enlist and not have to face any of this." It's kind of a throwaway line, except that the strategy sounds pretty good to them, and that's what they decide to do. So the disaster that led to so many deaths and threw the country in world war here is the catalyst for the next act in the movie.

Now, granted, this was released in 1945, a good 4 years or so after the actual event. I wasn't around back then, and maybe it's only with such ignorance I can say, with hindsight, that at the time this movie hit theaters, the end of the war was a foregone conclusion. But even if that were true, the war was still raging and U.S. troops were still dying.

Was 4 years "too soon" to use Pearl Harbor as an offhand reference in a comedy? Was 1945 too early for even a brief mention of the tragedy in the context of a scheme to get some idiot out of the consequences of self-inflicted bigamy? I guess not. Today people make frivolous references to the event all the time, but I don't know at what point that became "acceptable."

It's interesting to note that even today, let alone in 2005, people are a bit skittish about anything that approaches a joke about 9/11. Have times changed? Are the two situations at all comparable? Beats me. But I was surprised to hear even that little line in a 1945 movie.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My Second-Favorite Olympic Moment

My favorite moment of the Summer Games was Michael Phelps' thrilling win in the 100M Butterfly, which was one of the damndest things I've ever seen in all of sports. That race helped me forget how burned out I was of the pre-Olympic hope and just enjoy the competition. It helped, too, that each time I turned it to NBC (more accurately, my wife turned it there and I went along for the ride), the network was showing events and not endless profiles or travelogue pieces.

My second-favorite moment came last night during the closing ceremonies. The Cirque du Soleil-type stuff was kind of cool looking, but I preferred the glorious chaos that took place when the athletes came pouring into the stadium and just wandered about. Most of the smiling Olympians shared one objective, mugging for the cameras, and their pursuit of that common goal gave me a nice "we're all people" vibe. They were acting goofy, but in a respectful way, far more well behaved than, say, the crowd filing out of the stadium after an average Division I-A college football game.

They were also waving to the crowd, holding their medals with pride, and just generally enjoying themselves, and as I watched the spectacle, I let the uglier moments of the Olympics fade away--things like the murder of our volleyball coach's father-in-law, the apparent cheating of the Chinese gymnastics team, the Cuban taekwondo "artist" sucker-kicking a referee, and Usain Bolt sullying perhaps the greatest competitive sprint ever by pulling up to showboat and celebrate himself.

No, the sight of the athletes milling around together and having so much fun was enough to make me believe that maybe there is such a thing as "Olympic spirit," that maybe events like this do serve some kind of purpose of fostering international goodwill. Maybe.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

It's Dead, Jim

The quote, of course, is a paraphrase of Bones on the original "Star Trek," a show TV Land acquired, showed late nights for a few weeks, then booted to 6:00 A.M.

At least it's still on. TV Land is increasingly a lost cause, and I think it's time I give up and exile it from my "favorite channels" selection (ooh, that'll show 'em!).

Just look at this article at Sitcoms Online
. I'll give you the lowlights: In October, TV Land begins airing "3rd Rock from the Sun," a debatable move, to be sure. Worse, the fading network will air "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" nightly. Twice nightly, in fact! Ugh.

Sitcoms Online also reported that TV Land will air a mini-marathon of "CSI" on September 13. Even if you think that's an appropriate pickup, the show is already on about 50 times a week elsewhere. Supposedly it's a one-time only stunt, but writer Pavan Badal speculates that it could lead to more. I don't think any of us could be surprised anymore if that did join the regular lineup.

Pavan seems like a great guy, and his news blog is a must-see each day for the latest on program acquisitions by various TV outlets. But, man, I feel for the guy when he has to turn some of these press releases into a positive news story. I don't know how he manages to write about the sad decline of TV Land or other items such as ION buying "NCIS" reruns and still keep a sunny outlook, but I admire his optimism.

Optimism is something I no longer have for the future of TV Land. Even pessimism is fading, replaced by apathy. I'm even finding it difficult to muster the outrage needed to bitch about it here. I think somehow I'll manage to rip them one every now and then (lucky you), but really I'm giving up on hoping anything cool is going to happen on that channel until such time as, in the words of Flo Castleberry, "When donkeys fly."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

More RTN Highs and Lows

Hey, I just realized that I went DAYS without writing about Retro Television Network. Time to rectify that situation with some more pros and cons:

HIGH: Variety on the schedule. I wish there were more 1960s and 1950s shows, and maybe some more sitcoms, but at least RTN provides some semblance of variety in its lineup. There are cop shows, medical shows, private eye shows, thrillers, war shows, westerns, and more. Plus I like that their weekend lineup is distinct from the weekday one, and it's great that series with shorter runs get some plays on Saturdays and Sundays.

LOW: Perhaps I'm greedy, but it would be nice to see RTN take a few more chances, especially while it's young and not so beholden to demos. I'd enjoy seeing cartoons or game shows or maybe some old news programs on there. Sure, there are niche cable networks devoted to airing certain genres, but they haven't locked up everything, and besides, many of those are abandoning the "retro" stuff, anyway.

HIGH: One of my favorite RTN programs is "Run For Your Life," a nifty variation of "The Fugitive" starring Ben Gazzara as a man with a fatal condition, one which conveniently leaves him hale enough to span the globe and have adventures as he tries to pack as much living as possible into the year or two he has left.

Ivan at TDOY wrote about this show recently
, and I'll add that I enjoy the somewhat melancholy air the show has because of that sense that time is running out. Gazzara's performance captures this hint of sadness without turning the character into a self-pitying mope. I also think "Run" has one of the best title/end credits sequences in TV history, a POV sequence that puts you in a car and sends you racing down an empty road into a vast desert.

Oh, and I'd mention Pete Rugolo's music, but I'm still trying to forget this.

LOW: Every now and then, there are some audio hiccups and pixilation issues on RTN. I suppose this is a result of compression, but I'm not savvy enough to go into depth here. Really, I feel like I'm nitpicking here. I'm just glad to see some of these old shows in any form, and overall the channel looks pretty good. But, hey, I have to include a few "Lows" to justify titling this post "Highs and Lows."

LOW: There are no closed captions on any of the programs, at least none that I've seen. Being involved with captioning in a professional capacity, I'm biased, but I've long known you don't have to NEED the service in order to appreciate it. Having a new baby in the house certainly makes me appreciate the ability to mute the tube every now and then while she's trying to fall asleep. I don't know why RTN is exempt from captioning requirements; maybe it's still under the radar. Hopefully they'll offer something soon.

HIGH/LOW?: I read somewhere that RTN showed programs out of broadcast order, but I can't slag them for that because the few shows that I checked ARE running in sequence. Granted, this isn't a big deal in terms of missing out on "Lost"-style serialization or character development (much as I enjoy "Quincy," I don't think the Q-man went through tremendous evolution over the course of his 8 seasons). What bugs me is when stations skip all over the map or go back and forth. For example, though I enjoy "Lou Grant" weekly on American Life, lately I only enjoy it 2 or 3 times a month because the network keeps interrupting the sequential run with repeated first-season episodes. So far, RTN isn't recycling a dozen or so episodes of anything and driving us crazy with repetition.

LOW: The future? Retro Television Network is a lot of fun, but I still worry that it can't last. A recent Sitcoms Online article explained future plans to expand the schedule with a bunch of live talk shows. Now, the goal is supposedly to get rid of some of the infomercials, but what if that stuff starts encroaching on the reruns? I know, I know, it's way too early to fret like that. But I can't help but wonder.

Friday, August 22, 2008

This Week in DVD: A Week Without Netflix

It's a slow week for new releases yet again, so let me talk instead about last week's Netflix fiasco. I'm still not sure what really happened, and I don't believe the company is going to come forth and explain it anytime soon, but they had some kind of "technical difficulties" that prevented them from shipping DVDs until the end of the week.

Naturally, many customers were upset. Well, I say "naturally" because I think people who pay for a service are justified in raising a reasonable gripe or two when they don't receive that service. The problem is particularly acute with a service like Netflix which relies on the postal service as well as its own limited shipping schedule. Since Netflix doesn't ship weekends, and since a DVD takes at least a day in the mail, well, a lot of people didn't get their discs for a whole week or so.

Cause for anger, or at least concern? I think so. Yet whenever an outage like this happens (and it has happened several times to Netflix, though this was the most severe problem I can recall), as soon as people post comments on Netflix's official site and unofficial outlets like Hacking Netflix, the chorus of "Get a Lifers" immediately chimes in. You know who I'm talking about--the people who chide customers for "whining" about not getting "their precious DVDs."

This backlash, which is often more mean spirited than the average original reaction, especially considering it's directed at individuals and not a profitmaking corporation, usually goes something like this:

"Oh, Boo-hoo. You don't get a DVD this week. How will you survive? Get a life! Read a book or go outside."

Assuming they aren't company shills, I don't get the point of this kind of commentary. As if people don't know there are alternatives to watching DVDs 24 hours a day. Duh! Perhaps some of the reaction to Netflix's latest trouble was a bit excessive, but it's not like they are providing a free service. People are paying money for those discs.

I mean, where is the line? If my cable goes out, at what point am I "allowed" to raise a fuss? Can I cause a commotion if the phone is out for a few days? "Things happen," we're told by these anti-griping gripers. Well, yeah, and there is usually some sort of compensation, even if someone is "working on it" and even if it's just an apology. Netflix issued some generic "sorry for the inconvenience" statements throughout the week but was rather tight-lipped about what was going on, so people got frustrated. It's part of the give and take between consumer and business.

You know, come to think of it, cable and phone companies and utilities often DON'T give us any refund for lost service. Netflix does. But that doesn't mean we can't be miffed while the situation is ongoing--particularly on Netflix and Netflix-related sites (it kills me how people take the time to log on to a specific site just to tell that site's users they need to get a life). And just because the cable company, for example, gets away with stiffing customers doesn't mean other businesses should be able to.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Brooks on Books: "Spoiled Rotten America" by Larry Miller

I'll go into more detail in a moment, but here's what you really need to know about Larry Miller's collection of comic essays: It's funny. Anyone familiar with Miller's standup comedy work knows he has an affinity for words and sharp comic observations. If you're not familiar with Miller's standup comedy work, let me tell you this: He has an affinity for words and sharp comic observations.

If you are familiar with Miller for his character acting in movies--including some pretty bad ones, actually--hopefully you realize he's often better than his material. In this book, he provides the material, and it's good stuff. Notwithstanding the title, it's not just a bunch of rants about how America has lost its way and needs to get its act together. There is some of that, sure, but Miller talks about everything from his embarrassment at buying pornography to raising children to appreciate black and white movies.

His writing is effective, and Miller gets a point across in each essay. He's not assembling jokes from old routines (though he does reprint one popular bit about drinking), but he's actually crafting coherent essays with beginnings, middles, ends, and purposes. And like I said, it's funny. He uses the right amounts of self-deprecation and outrage. His cultural references aren't solely based on old TV shows and movies (as mine probably would be) but are broad enough to include history, literature, and religion. It's no surprise that someone as articulate and clever on stage would translate so well to the page.

Not all of Miller's topics are cutting-edge. For example, his chapter on the War on Christmas must have been dated almost as soon as the book came out a few years ago. That whole issue always struck me as one inflated by right-wing pundits eager for a tussle. Miller does some interesting things with the idea, but part of me thinks, "What's next, an essay on college campuses being forced to teach HERstory?"

Miller's insights and conclusions don't always seem sophisticated or original. For example, he grapples with the issue of race, and while his effort is sincere, he doesn't come up with much more than we need to discuss the issue with honesty. You know what, though? Maybe that needs to be said. It's not revolutionary to suggest we should be more polite or that we should care about our jobs and take pride in our work, but the points are no less valid.

Don't mistake this for some kind of series of lectures, though. The book is a lot of fun to read, and Miller comes off as a great guy to sit down and have a lot of adult beverages with (drinking is a recurring theme here). Though many of the essays could be read out of order, there are so many running jokes and comments that you really should read the 17 pieces straight through. In particular, he gets a lot of mileage from one bit about a certain "Highlander" sequel, and it's good, smooth driving, too.

It's a great read with only one big drawback (two if you count discovering that Miller is a big Grateful Dead fan): Plowing through this makes you want to see some of Miller's standup, and if you don't have any on hand, you're gonna be annoyed. Thank goodness for YouTube.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Can you guess my VANTAGE POINT?

This weekend, I watched the 2008 gimmick thriller "Vantage Point," in which we see the events surrounding a shooting in Spain of the President of the United States repeatedly from multiple vantage points. Here I present different perspectives of the movie. Can you guess which one is really mine?

*Dude! This movie was rad! It was awesome!

*"Vantage Point?" Is that the one we saw last week? It had a lot of shooting and explosions in it, didn't it? No, I didn't care for it."

*Me gusta mucho "Vantage Point." Es numero uno.

*Snappy action movie with political overtones. You'll be able to "Point" to this one in my top 10 of 2008!"


*"Vantage Point?" Dreck like this is the best you puny Earthlings can manage? If this represents the pinnacle of your culture, the human race will indeed be easily dominated when the invasion is finally triggered by the Overlords.

*"Vantage Point" wastes the potential of its conceit by using it to bore us into submission; instead of revealing new and interesting things with the different viewpoints, it serves as an excuse to pad about 20 minutes of story into an hour and a half. What story there is is ludicrous, marked by nonsensical plot contrivances and weak dialogue. Furthermore, no actor comes off well here, and this may well be the worst-acted theatrical feature (with a "name" cast) of the year. This is a waste of time unless you sit down expecting the worst and enjoy it for unintended comedy value.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Operation Petticoat

One of RTN's offerings in particular represents both a high and a low for me. When I first looked at my local affiliate's Retro Television Network schedule, "Operation Petticoat" stood out in its Sunday morning back-to-back episodes spot. The adaptation of the Cary Grant-Tony Curtis movie sounded vaguely familiar, but if I ever saw reruns, it was on the short-lived HA! network if anything. It starred John Astin, with Tony's daughter Jamie Lee in a supporting role. Worth a look, right?

Unfortunately, the first episode I saw didn't do much for me. Astin, memorable as he was elsewhere, didn't seem right as the head honcho of the submarine. The jokes just weren't that sharp, and while there was a mild "before they were stars" thrill from seeing Curtis and Jim Varney in the cast, I just wasn't into the show, and I bowed out halfway through the second episode.

In fact, I was even more disappointed when I saw the credits at the end of that first show and saw that Leonard Stern was an executive producer. Even before he became a producer on "Get Smart," Stern wrote for two of the best sitcoms of all time, "The Phil Silvers Show" and "The Honeymooners." So, man, if he had any involvement at all, you'd think"Petticoat" would have been funnier.

So, yeah, this one stands out as a real disappointment on RTN's schedule. Now, that in itself isn't a big deal, as there are plenty of better shows to enjoy. But I also look at it this way: The presence of a show like "Operation Petticoat" represents not just a low for the network, but a real high.

See, this show only lasted 30-some episodes, and while it turns out not to be a lost gem, it certainly hasn't been played to death over the years. Even though I'm not a fan of this particular short-lived series, I'm pleased that RTN is giving it a run. Back when TV Land was, you know, good, it didn't rely on perennials like "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "MASH," heavily rerun favorites with hundreds of episodes in the can. It showed rarer programs with fewer offerings. That was part of the charm and fun of TV Land (I only regret I was too young, foolish, and/or busy at the time to take much advantage).

Television history isn't just long-lasting classics like "All in the Family" and "Gunsmoke." It's stuff like "Honey West" and "Best of the West" and programs that don't have "West" in the title. So while I won't be watching "Operation Petticoat" Sunday mornings, I hope others enjoy it and do, and I'm glad RTN is showcasing it.

Besides, maybe they'll put something else on after they go through that couple dozen.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

RTN Highs and Lows

More thoughts on the local Retro Television Network outlet...

HIGH: They actually show the end credits! Yes, that's right, the whole thing, too, without squeezing them into a little box and simultaneously running a promo for another show in the larger part of the screen.

LOW: The start and end times are about a minute off, which sometimes means those end credits bleed into the next time slot. This is kind of inconvenient if you're DVR'ing and watching later. You may think end credits aren't such a big deal, but when watching a bunch of vintage programs like these, I like matching the names with the familiar faces I see.

HIGH: Black and white. I'd like to see more of the older 1950s and early 1960s shows, but for now I'm just pleased they're showing something as old as "Bachelor Father." Bring on the older stuff, RTN!

LOW: Unreliable schedule: We still get the stray "Leave it to Beaver" episode as a fill-in for another show. Plus, after waiting for "Kraft Suspense Theater," AKA "Crisis," then enjoying it for a week, I recorded the exact same episodes this week! Surely RTN has access to more than 5 episodes?

HIGH: "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (and "Alfred Hitchcock Hour" weekends) is in my opinion the most consistent entertainment on there right now. Yes, many of the early half-hour episodes are on DVD, but still, this show is too good and too significant to be confined to a little-seen channel like Chiller. Even when the stories aren't top notch, Hitch's wraparounds are a riot.

LOW: I don't want to single out any programs in particular, but dotting the schedule in high-profile time slots are a few in which I am not at all interested. I'm sure the ratings are still minescule, and I kind of hope nobody's paying attention to them right now, but I'd hate to think the most popular offerings are "Knight Rider" and "The A-Team." Oops, I singled a few out.

HIGH AND LOW: "Operation Petticoat." Why is this forgotten sitcom both a high and a low? Well, I'll write about this in my next post. Stay tuned..

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Wire vs. Caroline in the City

Among this week's DVD releases are two notable television box sets: Season 5 of "The Wire" and Season 1 of "Caroline in the City." If I had to buy just one, and only one, which would it be? Well, let me break it down for us.

THE WIRE: Instrumental in maintaining HBO's reputation as purveyors of quality programming.
CAROLINE: Instrumental in watering down the once-potent concept of "Must See TV."

THE WIRE: Spotlights worthy veterans and promising newcomers in a brilliant ensemble cast.
CAROLINE: Conceived as a star vehicle for Lea Thompson.

THE WIRE: Offers hilarious moments despite ostenibly being a drama.
CAROLINE: Offers few laughs despite ostenibly being a comedy.

THE WIRE: Picked up for reruns by BET, which surprised many because of the show's adult themes, profanity, and severe violence.
CAROLINE: Picked up for reruns by Lifetime, which surprised many because, really, who needs to see that show again?

THE WIRE: Season 5 satisfied wrapped up multiple storylines and provided appropriate closure while realistically leaving some things open-ended.
CAROLINE: Season 1 set up dozens of episodes more of "will they or won't they" sexual tension between Caroline and her assistant.

THE WIRE: Season 5 MSRP: 60 bucks for 10 hourlong episodes
CAROLINE: Season 1 MSRP: 45 bucks for 24 half-hour episodes.

Given all this information, my choice is clear. If I had to buy one of these sets, and only one, I would pick...

"Caroline in the City." Hey, those "Wire" sets are expensive, man.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Brooks on Books: Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile

"Charlie Wilson's War" is a fantastic account of an amazing but true story. The late George Crile, a former CBS News producer, explains in detail how a congressman from Texas, with the help of key players like CIA bureau head Gust Avrakotos, essentially got the U.S. in the business of funding the Afghan mujahideen as they repelled the Soviet invasion.

I bought the book after seeing the movie last year and thinking, "Wow, that seems like a heckuva story, but I feel like a lot's missing." Indeed, there WAS, and while I don't want to rip director Mike Nichols or screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the book is a far richer, more pleasurable experience that accomplishes everything the adaptation does not. Surely part of it is the inherent advantage 500-plus pages of text has over less than two hours of screen time. I know Sorkin is aware of how much the film leaves out because I watched a History Channel special in which he told us much of it. Whatever the reason for the movie's superficial aura, everything is in the book, which I recommend without hesitation to anyone intrigued by the story.

As an example, after seeing the film, I wondered what drove Wilson to be such a vehement anti-Communist. Crile explains this effectively in about two pages, and he does it early. Granted, it might be a difficult thing to do in a movie without lapsing into cheesy, contrived-looking flashback scenes for back story, but still. Plus Crile has the opportunity to explore extraordinary but unsung individuals like Mike Vickers, a CIA officer who wound up practically crafting the entire Afghan War strategy.

Despite its title, "Charlie Wilson's War" is not a comprehensive military history. Really this book is about how Wilson pulled strings to get funding for the Afghan resistance. It's about how things get done in Washington, D.C. Crile immerses us in the lobbying, the legislation, the extralegal activities, and how the players maneuver in this world. It's a bit unsettling, but enlightening. Wilson's adventures as a self-made de facto Secretary of State visiting and negotiating with foreign countries are no less entertaining.

Though the author clearly relies heavily on Wilson and Avrakotos themselves as primary sources, he does his homework and incorporates a lot of research and interviews with a wide variety of figures ranging from foreign dignitaries to government insiders to former beauty queen girlfriends of Wilson. There are great stories here that sound too good to be true, yet apparently are just that good.

One of the strengths of Crile's writing is how he structures the narrative so it's easy to follow--no small task given the wide array of individuals and organizations involved. There were competing factions in the CIA itself, for example. Wilson himself was a legislative champion and loyal friend of both Israel AND Egypt, and somehow he got Pakistan to funnel Israeli weapons to Afghanistan in what became essentially an American proxy war. It's a complex story with many tangles to sort out, but Crile turns it into fun read without straining. He's good at reiterating key facts or connections to keep us up to speed without lapsing into dull, repetitive exposition.

One of the issues that will naturally come to readers of "Charlie Wilson's War" is whether or not we "brought on" 9/11 by essentially funding the terrorists that would attack us later. Crile doesn't directly spend much time on this, and I don't blame him; anyone paying attention sees signs that Wilson and Co.'s policies could have bad ramifications, but it isn't a 9/11 book. In fact, the few passages Crile does devote to this matter seem tacked on for an updated edition.

What I find far more interesting is the question of whether Wilson and Avrakotos and company should have been able to do what they did, period, regardless of the blowback factor. Here, Crile is more overt in raising questions. He never interrupts the flow of the book to do so, but he often points out just how illegal Wilson's actions are. Does the end justify the means? There is an interesting parallel drawn to the Iran-Contra stuff that was going on at the time. Many of those figures were disgraced (many were not) for conducting renegade foreign policy. Wilson arguably broke just as many and just as important laws, but he was ultimately saluted as a hero in the intelligence community and is now seen as a likable rogue who "got the job done." What's the difference? Is it just results? Is it the clarity of the goals that were being pursued? Our comfortable feeling today that communism was evil and we beat it?

Crile doesn't attempt to answer all these questions, but he gives the reader enough info to do so on his own. It's an excellent book, packed with vivid detail that never slows a lively narrative. Unlike the movie, it leaves you satisfied.

(P.S.: If you love Hoffman's performance as Avrakotos, you'll love reading the man's dialogue in the book and picturing the actor delivering it.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Just what are they saying here?

A&E's spinoff outlet The Biography Channel, believe it or not, still does show actual episodes of "Biography." In fact, despite a steady diet of stuff like "Airline" and "City Confidential" during the day, the primetime lineup often features several consecutive episodes, usually linked by some theme. At the very least there's some kind of overall programming flow. For example, tomorrow night, it's Richard Pryor, a special on "Animal House," and then a bio of John Belushi. Makes sense, right? Comedy, the seventies, etc.

Well, I was scanning the listings for something when I noticed their schedule for the 21st: New biographies of McCain and Obama at 9pm and 10pm respectively, followed by a recycled George W. Bush episode. Mm-hmm. Sounds right. But kicking off the night of "Biography" at 8pm is a look at another famous individual...

Notorious serial killer Richard Speck?

Just so we don't miss whatever point they're making, they repeat the cycle starting at midnight. Hey, there might be a campaign ad in this somewhere. I think maybe running the Paris Hilton episode would be more appropriate.

JSA (DE)Classified

As a comic book reader, I often fall behind on the news and business aspects of the hobby. I rarely read the advance solicitations that describe what publishers will ship 3 months from now. So I'm susceptible to surprises like the one that greeted me when I finished the last issue of "JSA Classified." The little box on the DC Nation page which teases the next issue's contents said something like, "Thanks for reading! See ya!" In other words, this title is going bye-bye.

It was far from a great comic book; in fact, every few months, I considered dropping it from my pull list. It featured some of the worst artwork I've ever bought in comics. Instead of spotlighting a variety of Justice Society characters, it ignored much of that potentially huge world and featured Wildcat every other arc. Yet I kept buying it because of my love for those JSA characters and my desire to support them.

After the debut arc, a Geoff Johns-penned Power Girl story, I don't think "JSA Classified" sold many copies. But I'd think there are more JSA fans who are sorry to see it go. There were some strong moments in the run. The finale, a two-parter starring Wildcat (natch) was good enough to rekindle my interest in the book and save it for the umpteenth time from my personal chopping block.

Now its gone, and at least I'm saving 3 bucks a month, but the unfortunate thing is that the cast of "JSA" proper has never been larger, making it difficult for individual characters to get significant face time. Now would actually be a good time for a spotlight book to keep some of those team members out there--members in addition to Wildcat. Hey, I love the guy, but, jeez...maybe DC is prepping "Tales of Wildcat" to replace this.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Cultureshark remembers...

3 recent deaths really stunned me. In chronological order...

Skip Caray: The longtime Braves announcer was always on when I was growing up because, well, the Braves were always on good, old TBS. I have to be honest and admit that sometimes those Braves telecasts seemed interminable, but that was more due to bad teams and then Caray's broadcast partners. Caray had that unmistakable Kermit-gone-to-seed voice and, more importantly, a big smart-alecky streak, and I always respected the guy. After his passing, many longtime Braves fans chimed in with memories of Skip making a blowout loss more bearable with a remark or two. He will be missed.

Bernie Mac: Talk about a stunner. Mac was way, way too young to die, and he surely had great work ahead of him. His eponymous Fox sitcom was one of my Dad's favorites. I only caught the show sporadically, but I enjoyed it as well. My father and I, I think, are both drawn to (at least overtly) hard-ass father types on sitcoms, and Mac played that to perfection. Throw in his film work ("Mr. 3000" was a great idea that should have been better, but I'm sure not gonna blame him), and his standup comedy, What a shame.

Isaac Hayes: Forget the Scientology stuff and the dust-up with Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Go back to the music and remember what made Isaac Hayes so cool. One of my favorite Hayes works is his star turn as the title role in the underappreciated 1974 blaxploitation pic "Truck Turner." Now, I don't know how the movie came about, but it seems like Hayes heard everyone telling him how cool his theme to "Shaft" was, and how cool SHAFT was, and he decided, "Hell, I'll cut out the middleman and make my own movie." And so he did, and of course he made his own theme song, one which was quite reminiscent of a certain other memorable soundtrack sensation...

The similarity of the two songs is hilarious, but despite that apparent self-ripoff, the actual movie "Truck Turner" is arguably more entertaining than "Shaft." This all would be enough of a legacy, but of course there was a lot more to Isaac Hayes' career. His character was thoroughly and ignominiously buried on "South Park" already, but if Kenny can come back, maybe Chef can get a different sendoff someday.

This Week in DVD (Ok, last week, but who's counting?)

I took a week off from this feature, but hopefully you found something to buy/rent/shoplift. Or maybe you bought something useful, like, I don't know, food. Well, feel free to skimp on the necessities this week because there are some decent releases.

Unfortunately, there are only 3 of them.

Foyle's War Set 5: The excellent BBC series is apparently kaput, and here's the last batch. These sets are expensive, and I wish they offered more extensive bonus material, but the teleplays (look at me putting on airs just because I'm talking about British telly) are excellent. Michael Kitchen is outstanding as Chief Superintendent Detective Exalted First Lieutenant Commodore Foyle (I may be off on his title somewhat), conveying heaps of wise-ass sentiments with a mere raised eyebrow or askew glance. The mysteries can be routine, but the setting--the homefront in WWII-era Hastings--fascinates. "Masterpiece Theater" shows these, yes, but they are edited versions, and you're missing a lot if you only see the PBS versions.

Get Smart Season 1: If our planet isn't hit by a meteor and dashed to bits in the next few weeks or so, I'm convinced it'll be because a karmic injustice has been rectified. Though this entire series was available through Time-Life for a few years, it was not otherwise available on store shelves or anywhere else. Meanwhile, the Nineties remake with Andy Dick was released this summer. That means that for a period of time, however brief it was, the Andy Dick version of "Get Smart" was readily available, but the original was not. You don't think this angered the Gods?

Route 66 Season 1: Yes, all of Season 1. So those of you who bought the butchered Season 1 Volume 2 releases with the fake widescreen effect, you are hereby rewarded with the opportunity to repurchase those episodes in their correct aspect ration--only you'll pay twice as much to get the first half of Season 1 all over again.

Oh, well, you ask, at least the subpar picture quality that plagued some first-half episodes was corrected, right?

Uh, no.

But, hey, at least they finally released a whole season box, right? Right?

Anyone want to take a chance on a preorder for Season 2?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Crummy Movie Cavalcade: The Happening

Perhaps it's not always fair to judge a movie by its marketing, but it took about 5 seconds of the first trailer I saw to convince me that "The Happening" was a crummy movie. Oh, sure, anyone who saw M. Night Shyamalan's previous efforts, "The Village" and "Lady in the Water," would have a pretty good idea the next one would reek, but that's not the logic I'm talking about.

What cinched it for me was the first momentous announcement by the important-sounding narrator. I realize I just described every single movie trailer ever, but hold on. The message this film led with, the vital info we had to have, the attention-grabber sure to make us run salivating to the nearest multiplex and ask--no, demand--for a ticket TO "THE HAPPENING" RIGHT NOW was...

"The first R-rated feature from M. Night Shyamalan."

After I heard that, I came up with a witty remark so clever and incisive that I nearly wept at the lack of a witness to testify to my brilliance: "SO?"

I mean, really, who cares? Is the typical Shyamalan fan sitting at home thinking, "Boy, I love that guy's twist endings, but his movies never have any boobies, man. I'm sitting this next one out." So of course, FOX's strategy would be to lead with that R rating, so Joe SixthSensePack can get excited: "All right! Dude's finally made an R!"

I realize the real idea is that the director could unleash a little more gore and violence this time, and in theory make a more intense thriller, but again, I say, so? (I really think I'm on to something with that new catchphrase. It's even better when you hear me deliver it) Shyamalan in particular is a director who relies on implied menace and not in-your-face shock. What, are we supposed to be eager for a 5-minute-long medium-shot take of a guy with an ax wound bleeding from his skull?

Hearing this bit of pointless puffery was all I needed to take a pass on this one. Forget Shyamalan's increasingly spotty track record, forget the questionable decision by yet another filmmaker to push his luck and ask Wahlberg to carry a movie, forget twist ending fatigue. I couldn't get past the boast that this time, it was an R-rated flick.

If you agree with me and think "The Happening" deserves a prime spot in the Summer Crummy Movie Cavalcade...GUESS WHAT? This whole post was actually about "Speed Racer!" How's that for a twist ending? Totally had you!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

YOUR daily RTN report

Last night, the local Retro Television Network affiliate finally came through with an episode of the much-ballyhooed (by me) "Kraft Suspense Theatre,"though it actually opened with what is apparently an alternate title of the program: "Crisis."

This episode from 1963, "The Name of the Game," starred Jack Kelly and Pat Hingle and was directed by a young Sydney Pollack. I'd love to tell you I enjoyed it, and I can tout the snazzy title sequence as a big plus, but my DVR went wacky on that one. I am not sure how this happened, but I can't pause or fast-forward the recording without the box suddenly reverting to live TV. So I had to play the show on my upstairs box (where the glitch was still in effect) and do a "live to tape" recording to my VCR so I can watch the episode later.

I'd be tempted to thank FIOS for the Multi-room DVR which came through by letting me run the program on a different box, but for the simple fact that the only reason I had to use it was because the main unit screwed up the recording in the first place. Ah, technology. Good thing I haven't yet pitched that "obsolete" VCR.

Was this a mere technological glitch? Or is fate conspiring to keep me from watching this TV show? It's gonna have to be damned SUSPENSEful after all this buildup. Of course, I'll still have the nightly suspenseful ritual of waiting to see if RTN subs in a "Leave It to Beaver" doubleheader at the last minute. After all, they were running some late-era episodes last week, and the unanticipated sight of a post-pubescent Beav always delivers a jolt.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Brooks on Books: King of the Half-Hour by David Everitt

Do you know who Nat Hiken is? Maybe he's a bit of an esoteric biography subject today, but, boy, I sure wish he is better known. He created one of my favorite TV shows of all time, "Sgt. Bilko," as well as "Car 54, Where Are You?" David Everitt's fine bio doesn't give as full a picture of the man as you'd like, but it is an entertaining survey of his work. It sucked ME in and didn’t let go, but would non-fans enjoy it? Well…

About a day or two after I started it, I took the book to a doctor's appointment. When the doctor entered the exam room, he asked me what I was reading. I replied that it was a biography of Nat Hiken and paused ever so briefly to see if the name registered. When it didn't, I mentioned Bilko and Car 54, and while there was maybe a glimmer of recognition, I could see that even those titles were hazy. The doc, a gentleman older than myself, I might add, then asked, "Weren't those really old shows?"

It was kind of a sad moment. Granted, at the time I was thankful he spent his formative years studying and doing med school instead of wasting them on reruns like, uh, some people I know, but still, it's sad that those classic sitcoms are fading from the national consciousness. What chance is there for the man that created them and wrote many of their episodes?

If you can see yourself having that kind of experience--hopefully you're a healthy individual and it doesn't have to be in the doctor's office--then you would probably get something out of David Everitt's bio. The thorough accounts of the making of those two series are the highlights of the book, but take note: In a 200-some-page chronologically arranged volume, Everitt doesn't get to "You'll Never Get Rich" (an alternate Bilko title) until almost page 100. A few chapters later, it's on to "Car 54," and soon afterwards, the book is over.

The section on "Bilko," compelling as it was, left me wanting more, though we do get some fun details on what a pain in the butt Maurice Gosford (who played Doberman) was, for example, and how Hiken cast the immortal Phil Silvers in the title role. "Car 54" fans might feel even hungrier, though that series had far less episodes and thus warrants less pages. Everitt has a good understanding of what made those shows work, discussing, for example, the complex plots of "Bilko" and choosing solid examples to analyze creative aspects.

But while those two sitcoms represent the arguable peak of the writer/director/producer's career, they don't come close to representing the whole of it. Before those achievements, he wrote for Fred Allen and Milton Berle on radio, then Berle on TV, and then for Martha Raye. I never thought I'd long to see episodes of the "Martha Raye Show," but reading this book and how Hiken turned around her career and crafted a critical hit does the trick.

Everitt writes about early Hiken creation "The Grouch Club" and makes me want to scour some Old-Time Radio archives to get some episodes. The post-Bilko and "54" era is brief, owing to Hiken's untimely death, but his work on projects like the Don Knotts vehicle "The Love God?" is also well chronicled.

Hiken's career is covered well, but what of Nat Hiken the person? Well, it seems that, like so many hardworking creative types, the work did define the man in many ways, with his intense devotion to his craft and his inability to delegate causing his early death. He was well liked, though, loved by family and friends and admired. It's just a shame that Everitt couldn't unearth a few more details about what he was like. There are anecdotes sprinkled throughout that remind us of the quick wit Hiken possessed in person as well as in print. We see glimpses of how his creative drive may have sometimes hampered his home life. But a little more personal info might have enhanced the book. The bio often relies on speculation from associates to describe how Hiken felt about key events. As is, however, Everitt is successful at establishing how the writer's personality and habits affected his professional life--his longtime tendency to procrastinate, for example, which directly affected the shows he worked on.

"King of the Half-Hour" is much better as a professional than a personal biography, but Everitt has done a solid job at working with what he is. It's not like there are tons of primary sources on Nat Hiken floating around, right? The author also makes the book more than just a bio with details that may appeal to more than just, say, "Bilko" nuts. As examples, Everitt discusses the Red Scare and blacklist, the differences between East and West Coast TV production, and backstage politics at CBS in the course of writing about Hiken. Therefore the book should be of interest to anyone with an interest in the so-called Golden Age of Television, though such material is of course covered in much more depth elsewhere.

I loved this book, but if you don't have much interest in "really old shows," you might not get much out of it. But I'd urge you to grab some "Bilko" episodes and see if you don't want to find out more about the brilliant mind that helped craft them.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

RTN = A-OK (So far)

Caring for a sick daughter and a sick wife this past week limited my ability to sample the newly arrived (at least in my area) Retro Television Network in its debut week, but I saw enough of it here and there, plus I have a DVR full of programs to watch when I get some more time.

(I know what you're thinking: "Rick, wouldn't an 'Ironside' marathon be the perfect tonic for whatever ails your family?" I don't disagree, but others in the family do.)

So far, despite some snafus in the schedule, with many programs temporarily replaced by "Leave It to Beaver" (much to the frustration of Ivan over at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear; by the way, Ivan, you were right--no "Kraft Suspense Theater" yet), I love RTN. I still regret missing the bounty of Paramount classics they aired until just recently, but I can't complain about "Alfred Hitchcock," "Rockford Files," and rarities like "Bachelor Father."

The network's presentation is charmingly low-budget, with cheap-looking graphics and promos. I love it. I want RTN to do just well enough to stay afloat but not well enough to reach the point where it goes the TV Land route and starts chasing "better demographics." Actually, RTN's retromercials and (at least partially) idiosyncratic programming selections are reminiscent of TV Land when it was decent.

For now, RTN's programming has limited commercial interruption, and those ads it does run are for older-skewing products like HoverRound and in-house ads for parent station WLJA. There aren't annoying bugs plastered all over the screen. There does appear to be some time compression going on in their programs, but fortunately I don't notice enough to let it bother me.

Sure, I see some notable dogs in the weekday lineup, and the heavy load of infomercials from 1:00 AM to 10:00 AM is weak, but overall RTN is a great addition to an increasingly bleak rerun landscape. It's so good that after just one week, my natural pessismism is already kicking in, and I'm dreading the inevitable downfall. A recent article at Sitcoms Online (which promises those missing shows like "Kraft Suspense Theater" are on the way) claimed that RTN is going to move to a national schedule, as opposed to the current model that lets affiliates choose their own, and this worries me, as I'm afraid it'll lead to a blander, younger-appealing lineup.

But, hey, why stress over that now? I have a host of decent reruns to choose from, which means even more excuses to avoid chores (but not taking care of ill family members, of course). I am going to try to enjoy this while it lasts, at least until "McHale's Navy" is replaced by "Dharma and Greg."