Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Meow Mix Think Like a Cat" and other GSN animal shows

A few weekends ago, my wife and I, home at 9:30 on a Saturday night, sat on the couch and watched GSN's "Meow Mix Think Like a Cat," a game show with cats and their owners competing for lots of Meow Mix. And a lot of money if they can beat the infinitesimal odds.

I felt sorry for Chuck Woolery for hosting it. Then I felt sorry for us for watching it. Then again, we can blame it on our infant daughter, who keeps us home nights. I don't know what Chuck's excuse is--alimony? Back taxes? Desperate desire to stay in the limelight, however dimmed it may be?

The show itself was silly, even to a cat owner like myself. It was so filled with plugs for Meow Mix that by the end of the episode, I craved the stuff. Fortunately, our cat isn't on the stuff; otherwise there might have been an awkward moment when we bumped into each other at his supper dish.

I don't think Woolery is even a cat guy. I could see Alex Trebek being one. Haughty, superior, capable of occasional forced displays of warmth--yeah, that man thinks like a cat. But if Woolery is a lover of felines, maybe this is a decent mix--er, combination of show and host. I got to thinking about other possibilities GSN can explore if it wants to continue making shows in which humans try to emulate the behavior of animals. The formula is simple: Take one of the many past and presents emcees out there, match them with an appropriate creature, and there you go. I'll let GSN come up with the sponsors.

Here are some of my ideas:

*Hug a Cuddly Ol' Teddy Bear with Richard Karn
*Wrestle a Bear with Drew Carey
*Strut Like a Peacock with John O'Hurley
*Creep Like a Sloth with Louie Anderson
*Get Paid to be Spayed with Bob Barker
*Sing Like a Mockingbird with Wayne Brady
*Scratch Yourself Like a [Insert Comically "Backward" Animal Associated with the South] with Jeff Foxworthy
*Hook Up with a Model Half Your Age with Christopher Knight (hey, a middle-aged male recapturing his youth is an animal in his own right)
*Sit There Like a Pet Rock with Pat Sajak

Saturday, November 29, 2008

This Week in DVD

Hancock: Anyone else disappointed that this isn't an Oliver Stone biopic alleging that the most famous signature on the Declaration of Independence is a forgery?

George Carlin: It's Bad for Ya: I've seen this final standup special of the great comedian, and--spoiler alert--he was really ticked off about a lot of stuff.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: I saw this thoughtful Richard Burton espionage pic a while ago but wasn't overwhelmed; perhaps this Criterion disc is a good opportunity to revisit it. I will say that I'll never forget the thrilling moment in which Burton is building a snowman and his mom opens the window and yells, "I don't care if you ARE a spy! Come on in before you catch your death of cold!" Gives me goosebumps, and not just because of the outdoor cinematography.

24: Redemption: I wish I could give this a thumbs up or down, but, hey, I still have the Fox broadcast version on my DVR. I want to watch it, but..I just don't have time for this, dammit!

Fred Claus: Every time I turn around, Vince Vaughn is in some kind of yuletide movie. Who does he think he is, Father Christmas? More like Ne'-er-Do-Well if Well-Meaning Second Cousin on the Wife's Side Christmas.

WWE The History of the Intercontinental Championship: Here's an interesting paradox: The Intercontinental belt has long been known as "the worker's title," the one usually fought over by the guys that could actually wrestle, as opposed to the stiffs who controlled the World title. Yet the longest-reigning IC champ in history is The Honkytonk Man. All you non-wrestling folks out there bailed long ago, didn't you?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Half-Assed Gourmet: Nectar of the "Ye Gods, that sucks!"

You ever pick up something new at the grocery store, try it, hate it, but then keep sampling it because you can't bear the thought of wasting the whole thing? Well, this just happened to me, but it's even worse because I got this iced tea on sale. Yet still I'm trying to salvage "my money's worth" from a half-gallon that cost me less than 2 bucks.

I like Turkey Hill iced tea, and I even like Turkey Hill diet iced tea, but I detest Turkey Hill diet green tea mango with ginseng and honey. It tastes like a blend of mouthwash and really cheap mouthwash. Maybe it's the ginseng? Any sane man would have dumped it down the drain after the first wretched gulp, but, no, I had to give it another chance. So I waited a few minutes, drank some agua to cleanse the system, and tried again. Still horrible!

Now, here I definitely should have admitted defeat and kissed my buck and a half good-bye. I would have gladly paid 5 bucks just to kill the aftertaste. Instead, I made a mistake. I placed the jug back in the fridge and let it be for a few days.

So what happens when I open the door a few days later looking for a tasty beverage? I start with the rationalizations. Maybe my taste buds were off. Maybe something I ate that day threw my inner tea tolerance off kilter. Maybe--eh, just maybe I ought to give it another shot. I swear I'm not normally this cheap when it comes to grocery purchases, but something inside me would not let me surrender. I was going to like this drink, darn it!

Except I wasn't. It still tasted of mouthwash, only now it was mouthwash that was a few days older. How can one company make something so good yet also produce this swill? I don't know if I'll be able to buy the good Turkey Hill tea again, and it's not the company's fault--well, of course it is in a sense--but mine, rather, for stubbornly forcing their weaker product down my gullet in a misguided attempt to train myself to enjoy it.

I'd like to tell you I finally did pour it into the sink and recycled the carton (thereby making "going green" refer to something besides my pallor after drinking this), but I left it in there. That's the bad news.

The good news is, my wife just told me her friend was over and had some of it. "I hope you don't mind," she said. "Mind? MIND? I hated that stuff. Did SHE like it?" Indeed, she did!

I feel vindicated! See? I'll get my money's worth yet from this stuff. I just have to invite my wife's friend back over to finish it off for me. And I have to do it soon because the container is still in my refrigerator, at least half full. And I'm getting thirsty. And, come on, how bad could it really be? And hasn't it been a while since I drank some tea...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

5Q Movie Review: iron Man

Q: Whoa, whoa, whoa, where do you get off posting about a movie you admit you had 3 false starts on, a movie it took you a week to get through?

A: Well we had baby issues come up! And in my defense, once we got a half-hour into the movie, we were good to go and made it all the way to the end.

Hey, how did you know that, anyway?


A: Uh, well, I haven't yet seen Dark Knight, Hulk, or Hellboy [hangs head in shame], but I can say that "Iron Man" certainly is indicative of many comic book movies. Unfortunately, that's not an entirely good thing. While I like many aspects of Jon Favreau's big-screen rendition of the character, the film itself is too much setup, too little action--sadly true of many comic movies that rely on "origin stories" for much of the plot. It takes about 30 minutes to see Tony Stark use the armor, and afterwards there isn't enough payoff to justify the time investment.

Q: What about Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man? Does he pull it off?

A: I think he's great. The way this movie is constructed, anyone could play Iron Man, really--well, OK, maybe it would be a stretch for even the delightful and talented Swoosie Kurtz--but playing Tony Stark is the key, and Downey excels here. He captures the roguish charm of the wealthy playboy/munitions manufacturer without turning him into the often-dickish figure he's flirted with becoming in recent years' Marvel comics. Downey is the best thing about the film, and while not on the level of, say, Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow as far as making a blockbuster a must-see, he delivers a credible performance--more importantly, an entertaining one.

Q: How about the supporting cast? Do they match up well with Downey?

A: Gwyneth Paltrow is fine as Pepper Potts, and she has a fun chemistry with boss/possibly something more than just a boss Tony Stark, but the character is underwritten.

Speaking of underwritten, you have to laugh at the notion of Terence Howard demanding ANYTHING to be in the sequel and getting booted off this gravy train. Fans speculate that his Jim Rhodes character, who becomes War Machine in the comics, will be a big part of the sequel, but he does almost nothing interesting in the first one. In fact, I believe Swoosie Kurtz could play Jim Rhodes without difficulty.

As for the villain--who I'm not naming here even though I think it's common knowledge and you can just think of the star I've left out--it's a massive miscalculation on the story level to have this individual be the big threat Iron Man faces. The effort to "buff him up" as a physical equal is weak, and this makes the climax uninteresting. What's a superhero movie without a worthy villain? It's "Iron Man."

Q: What are you talking about? This movie is a huge smash, it has earned great reviews, and even the comic book geeks love it! Why are you hating?

A: It's a fun flick with some cool effects, and I imagine it was a blast in a movie theater. I just think it came up short story-wise. However, I think director Jon Favreau showed enough signs that he "gets" the character, and I enjoy Downey's performance enough, that I'll gladly give this team another shot when the sequel arrives. Just unleash the armor and let Shellhead fight some cool bad guys!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Do we really need a reason?

I went over to Trader Joe's today to get a few non-essentials (man can't live on staples alone--well, maybe he can, but it's not much of a life) and saw, much to my non-surprise, the store will be closed tomorrow for Thanksgiving. That would be good enough for me, but the sign on the door adds this remark:

" that our crew can enjoy the holiday with their families."

Each major holiday, I see similar signs, and it always makes me wonder: Are there people who, barring such an explanation, will go up to the store on Thanksgiving, pound the door, peer inside, and wonder why the hell they can't get in to stock up on tempura shrimp?

Really, I think this situation falls into the "no explanation necessary" category. If you want to close your establishment on Thanksgiving, close it. If you close on a random Wednesday without apparent reason, I might be miffed for wasting the trip, but I think I get the picture on a big holiday.

If you want to assure me that you celebrate the occasion, well, that's fine, but unless you stop selling what I want at a reasonable price, I won't patronize your joint just because I know your employees like digging into a giant turkey like most of the rest of us.

I guess if someone has to say something, that explanation is a lot more customer-friendly than, "Trader Joe's will be closed Thanksgiving because nobody wants to work that day and we don't think you'll come out here and shop, anyway."

'Tis the season to be shopping

You're about to hear, if you haven't already, scores of dire prognostications as to the upcoming holiday shopping season. With the economy reputedly in the crapper, plus the natural tendency for the media to jump on anything that justifies a "Worst Christmas Season for Merchants in Years" headline, you just know there's gonna be some doom and gloom.

It's only common sense to believe people will cut back given all the bad stuff going on. But can we be sure people are gonna cut back on buying stuff? I'm starting to think otherwise based on anecdotal evidence--a fancy way of saying, "I talked to a few people," but, hey, one of these people was my wife, and I'm reasonably sure I can trust her.

Turns out the malls around here are already packed. Mrs. Shark returned burned out, frustrated, and dispirited after a brief shopping excursion last weekend. The mall was insane. This was the week before Thanksgiving, remember.

I've heard similar experiences already. In other words, though the world may be falling apart, though numbers just came out today reporting a big drop in consumer spending in October, I still have no reason to believe going to a shopping mall--or a big shopping center/plaza/strip mall/what have you, for that matter--will be anything less than a big migraine in the weeks ahead.

Maybe I'm wrong, though. Perhaps my area is insulated from the economic woes. Perhaps the shopping situation is so chaotic here that even a drop to mildly chaotic wouldn't register. I suppose it's even possible that all those families at the mall are just walking around and not actually shopping--but I doubt it.

In summary, then, the Cultureshark Christmas Economic Forecast calls for the following: Long lines, non-navigable parking lots, stifling crowds, and general confusion. You heard it here first!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Good-bye, Monthlies

My post title sounds like a bad Judy Blume novel, but the "monthlies" to which I refer here are the comic books I've been buying regularly for the last several years. I suspended my pull list--the regularly published titles I ask my comic shop of choice to reserve for me each month--and said good-bye to the world of regular funny book purchases. I told myself I was going to come into the store to get stuff, freed of the obligation of getting every issue of a title every month. Heck, I even told the friendly comic store guy that. I believed it at the time, but now, a couple weeks later, I'm becoming more used to the idea of, as they say, "waiting for the trade."

There's nothing like the joy of getting a big stack of issues at the local comic shop, and the thrill is even greater when someone goes back behind the counter--or better yet, into a back room--and gets a pile just for you. That jolt was getting weaker and weaker for me lately, though, for several reasons:

* Price: Comics are just too expensive these days. Sure, many things are, but comic books are disproportionately high, with 3 bucks the standard at DC and Marvel and 4 bucks reportedly on the way (already here for many high-profile titles). That price point discourages sampling of new titles and limits purchases. And independent comics, many of which offer less pages for more bucks, offer even less value. I'd love to try different titles and support smaller publishers and non-superhero-based titles, but the cost is usually just too high.

*Storytelling: Bitching about decompressed storytelling in comic books has long been a favored pastime among fans, and this phenomenon finally caught up with me. I've always been a DC guy, though I read and enjoy Marvel as well. So I'm biased, but I think Marvel tends to be a little more decompressed these days, with even the better titles paced to fill trade-paperback-sized arcs, often at the expense of a tighter, faster-paced story.

Yet I must admit DC is guilty of this same thing. I love Geoff Johns' writing, which is good since he writes about half of DC's books these days--but his current "Kingdom Come" saga in "JSA," co-written with Alex Ross, has seemingly stretched since people sported Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers. Furthermore, Johns' character-based, continuity-laden writing is often more rewarding in collected format as opposed to monthly (or greater) installments. Many readers out there are sharper than I am, but the interval just gives me time to forget details and lose nuance.

*Event fatigue: DC and Marvel are in an event-driven pattern, with big miniseries setting the agenda across their product lines. This strategy is sometimes successful, sometimes not. I moved back into the hobby as a lapsed fan just in time for "Identity Crisis" and enjoyed the hell out of it, but I'm weary of these hyped series spreading out and influencing so many other books, to the point where you feel pressured to buy 3 or 4 different tie-ins a month. Yeah, you can ignore the tie-in books, but it's increasingly difficult to ignore these would-be blockbusters.

Having said all this, there is a lot of stuff out there I like and will miss. Really, the biggest consideration for me is price, because if the comics were cheaper, I would be more willing to tolerate and try to adapt to modern storytelling styles. It doesn't look like we're gonna roll back to $1 or even $2 comics anytime soon, though. So though I hope to make it into the comic shop regularly and support entertaining titles that specialize in Done-In-One stories that can be enjoyed in one sitting (like "The Spirit"), I might be at home...waiting for the trade.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thinking of Linking

*A BBC News article about the Vatican forgiving John Lennon--sort of--for his infamous comments comparing The Beatles to Jesus. I remember first learning about the brouhaha and marveling that people blew his remarks so far out of proportion. The best thing about the controversy was Lennon's bewildered apology. For some reason, I crack up each time I hear him say that he wasn't "comparing us to Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is." Something in the way he says it amuses me because it's clear how stupid he sees the whole thing. Of course, it probably wasn't too funny to him at the time.

*An extraordinary piece by Roger Ebert chronicling his own physical appearance over the years and how he feels about resembling the Phantom of the Opera (his words, not mine).

*A spirited rebuttal to "Heroes" creator Tim Kring's assertion that his show is struggling because of the difficulty of sustaining a serialized drama in today's TV environment. Kring sounds increasingly desperate, like a guy who doesn't really know why his show isn't catching on anymore and is trying to come up with anything to convince people he has an answer.

*An appreciation of recently-deceased comedy writer Irving Brecher at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. Ivan focuses on Brecher's radio work, but what a career--the Marx Brothers, "Life of Riley," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and on and on.

*Last but not least, Stephen Bowie offers a fascinating take on "The Donna Reed Show" while insulting the views of DVD Talk reviewer Paul Mavis. I think Bowie goes too far with regards to Mavis, but his essay is great reading.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

This Week in DVD

Odd Couple Season 5: Sure, the music cuts in these sets are annoying, but at least the rest of the show is largely intact, and though Paramount half-assed them after the Time-Life Season 1 set, we at least have all seasons of this classic sitcom. And word on the virtual street is that the Paul Williams episode, a notorious Brooks Family Favorite, is mostly complete with all those great P.W. songs. Don't ask me to explain the greatness that is Paul Williams on "The Odd Couple." Just an old-fashioned looooove song...I tried to summarize his appeal recently when my wife came downstairs as I watched "Phantom of the Paradise." Let's just say my summary was ineffective.

Wall-E: Speaking of my lovely wife, I annoyed the hell out of her this summer by repeating "Wall-E" the way I heard the little robot dude say it in all the commercials. Then I started saying it over and over again even when I DIDN'T hear the ad. Now this one's on DVD, and I'm already starting to say it out loud again. My marriage might be in real trouble here, folks.

Tropic Thunder: So wait, now, I'm confused. It's OK to do blackface now, or only when you have an Academy-Award-nominated actor do it? And are we supposed to laugh with Tom Cruise now instead of at him? These Ben Stiller movies are so complex.

VCI Forgotten Noir/Crime Volume 4: These collections of old cheapo productions are great, but if you think they're really stretching the definition of the word "noir," well, so do they. At least they added the word "crime" to the title.

Burke's Law Season 1 Volume 2: I already enjoyed most of these episodes on American Life, and though I'm not sure what the rewatchability factor is on the show, VCI seems to be doing a great job for fans, notwithstanding the split seasons. And they're not calling it "Burke's Law Noir," so points for that.

The Texan: I know very little about this old western TV series, but I mention it, anyway, because...well, why not? I don't know much about "Hawaii Five-0," either, which gets a season 5 release this week.

Star Trek Season 3 Remastered: OK, so now that Paramount has put out all the fancy new tricked-out versions, that means we can all get the original versions dirt cheap, right? Right, Paramount? Right?

McHale's Navy Season 4: Shout Factory quietly keeps this series going.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Journey Into DVD: The Royle Family Series 1

"The Royle Family" is a great example of a TV show on DVD that gives me pause at first, but soon grips me until I wind up tearing through the whole thing. At first, this 1997 Britcom is a little off-putting. OK, maybe a lot off-putting. But these 6 episodes of Series 1 leave me wanting many more.

It's mostly a group of people--mostly the titular Royles, but friends and neighbors as well at different times--huddled around a TV in their living room and chatting. There's a low-rent feel to everything, with the grainy video, limited camera angles, and the not-TV-attractive cast. And the characters have some unpleasant habits in which they indulge throughout the show, with smoking being one of the least offensive of them. The patriarch, Jim Royle, is shown picking his nose, scratching himself, grabbing himself, and doing other things.

So there's an overall crude atmosphere that might turn you off. But something happens as you watch this show, and you get hooked. At least, I sure did. There are only 6 episodes, and each one of them goes by so fast it really leaves you wanting more.

In his excellent review of the show, Paul Mavis at DVD Talk describes the phenomenon that occurs when you watch "The Royle Family." You may feel a little superior to these people--after all, they're rude, crude, and they just sit around on their arses watching telly--but soon you realize that, hey, what does that make YOU? After all, YOU are sitting on your arse watching THEM?

Mavis doesn't make this connection, but when I watched this disc, I thought of another nineties comedy, "Beavis and Butt-head." They were crude characters who sat on the couch watching TV, and while you at first laugh at what they're saying and maybe laugh at them, you also get the postmodern commentary on the audience.

However, "The Royle Family" is quite different in the sense that you really care about them. There's a narrative that unfolds over the course of the 6 episodes, as Jim and Barbara's mid-20-ish daughter Denise prepares for her wedding to Dave, who comes over and hangs out a lot. There are several levels of humor in this show. There is the sheer joy of laughing at what the characters say and do for their own sake. Hey, I like a good joke about shite as much as the next bloke. There is also the ironic sort of humor like that in the title--their names are Royle, but this family hardly represents the typical picture of a "royal family." But there's also a more subtle humor, often rooted in a less obvious irony, that becomes increasingly evident the more you watch.

Fact is, these people are talking about more than just poop, and their interactions get to essential human feelings and issues with which we can all identify. But beyond the humor, as you watch and get wrapped up in the lives of the Royles, you pay attention to the dialogue and appreciate more of the wit. You also notice how much the inhabitants of this household, though often sarcastic and cutting with their remarks, actually care for each other. It starts out as a loving glance or two, then maybe a kind word, and eventually you get some true outward displays of affection. Fear not, though, the show remains crude and amusing even in these moments.

Well before the sixth episode, I was well beyond the "meta" enjoyment of the show and was laughing WITH the characters as much as anything. Furthermore, I wanted to know what was going to happen next, even if it wasn't going to be much, and I didn't want to leave their company.

It's hard to describe this unique series and do it justice, but it's a very funny, clever Britcom that I would speculate is just as fresh today as it must have been in the late 90s. It takes you into a world all its own and creates a vivid watching experience. And, oh, yeah, it's hilarious. So the show is outstanding. Let's talk about the DVD extras.

Uh, yeah, there are none. I know very little about this show, and it would be nice to learn more, but there are no featurettes giving context, no audio commentaries, no bonuses at all. Perhaps the writers--primarily the actress and actor who play Denise and Dave--prefer to let their work speak for itself or are afraid to pull back the curtain too much. Still, this bare bones disc is a disappointment to anyone who is delighted by the program and wants to learn more about its production or its place in British culture. Lucky for me, though, there is something to look forward to: Series 2, a DVD which I hope to acquire and watch in the near future.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Richie Rich? You ain't kidding

Does anyone know why this book is selling for 78 bucks from marketplace sellers on Amazon? OK, so this "Harvey Comics Classics" Richie Rich collection is out of print. But why?

Even if it is OOP...78 bucks? Richie Rich himself would have ask to his old man for an increase in his allowance to get this. I wish I would have picked it up when I had a chance because it must have been printed with gold pages. I must admit it makes a great collectible. Not only do you get the chance to enjoy some old-school Harvey comics, you get a solid investment and a hedge against inflation.

It's not like this reprint series is defunct. Since this volume 2, Hot Stuff and Baby Huey collections appeared, and there's a forthcoming release starring Little Lotta, Dot, and Little Audrey. What's the big secret with this one? I'm sure it's a great book. I bought the first volume, featuring Casper, for half price at a comic convention. I think it's a great value, especially when I compare it to the 400% price of the follow-up.

Richie Rich is a boy of the people, frequently sharing the fruits of being born into wealth with his less fortunate friends. Maybe he should do us a favor and buy some of these copies of his books and distribute them to us poor unwashed fans. Heck, Richie, I'll even wash first, though I'm sure you'll just have Cadbury pass them out.

A gripe with video rental joints

I've ranted this before, and I'll rant it again: Why in the world can't I search a video store's inventory online and see what they have from the comfort of my own home? I can do this with Redbox--one of the things that makes their system so consumer-friendly--but at the so-called traditional brick-and-mortal rental giants, Hollywood Video and Blockbuster, as far as I know, it's no dice.

Do these places expect me to--gasp--actually go in the store and try to find it without checking ahead of time? Hey, I've tried that 3 times, I think, at my local Hollywood Video since I moved Cultureshark Tower to its present location a few years ago. Each time, I came up empty and kind of regretted I made the effort.

Let's put aside for the moment the idea that these stores should be working to stock titles Netflix doesn't--like double-dip editions. I'd think that given the decline in their industry, these places would be eager to get me in the store. If I can go online and search the individual store's "shelves," even if I don't find what I'm looking for (in this case, the director's cut version of David Fincher,s "Zodiac"), maybe I'll see something else and be motivated to get into the store and grab it that day rather than wait for Netflix to bring it. I doubt it, but at least there's a chance.

Maybe I'm missing something fundamental, but it seems a missed opportunity here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reverse Blogging: "Quantum of Solace"

I'm going to try something revolutionary today, and if it's been done before, well, be content with the knowledge that it's revolutionary for this blog.

I feel I should write something about the new 007 flick "Quantum of Solace," but I'm not gonna get to see it for a while, so today I present REVERSE BLOGGING. Instead of posting a thoughtful essay on the film and its place in the James Bond universe, I'm going to give you the comments. Then you can come up with that dazzling, provocative post yourself. I stay hip, you get to use your imagination--everybody wins!

"Your essay was dazzling and provocative. Thanks for a great piece!"

"Can't argue with what you say here, but did you really need to rip Timothy Dalton?"

"Good point about the darker nature of the Craig films. The way you tie it in with classic-era Film Noir is simply brilliant."
--Stan A.

"Absolute rubbish."

"Great reading here. I'd love to see a part 2. But I think you underemphasize the connection with "A Man Called Flintstone."

"Some outstanding work here."
--Fellow Blogger

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Comic strips: The last refuge of the old fogey


This is one reason I love comic strips. Not only do the comics in general still appeal to old people--consider the number of legacy strips that have been around decades and don't seem to be going anywhere--but there are comics about old people. And the creators who make those comics about old people feel free to make references about other old people.

The basic structure of today's gag is familiar, but I just love the twist of the "Barnaby Jones" reference. In how many other mediums would some executive/editor would have told Brian Crane, "Hey, Crane, lose the Barnaby Jones punchline. Nobody's gonna know who he is. Can't you go with some old guy who's still that guy on CSI?" And of course, HE would have no clue who Barnaby is.

(Thanks to Comics. com for today's "Pickles" by Brian Crane")

Night at the Museum 2? Really?

Oh, I'm not surprised that there IS a sequel to the Ben Stiller comedy smash. I'm surprised that people are looking forward to it. At least, they are according to a segment I heard on the radio the other day. Between tunes, the jock was talking about a survey that asked moviegoers what 2009 films they were most excited to see.

Of the 5 he named, I think all were sequels except for the Michael Mann/Johnny Depp pic "Public Enemies." Yeah, I'm looking forward to that one, too. And I can't fault "the people" for wanting to see the next Harry Potter epic. But how did "Night at the Museum 2" come in at number 5? Were there only 5 films listed in the survey?

Hey, I could be wrong here, but I assumed that while the first one made a couple-three million, it was one of those fluke things where families just needed a comedy to see and it happened to be in the right place at the right time. Guess I should know better. Apparently, when a film grosses a couple-three million bucks, a good portion of the public actually likes that film and would pay to see a sequel.

I don't have anything against those who loved "Night at the Museum," but I just can't see why anyone would get hyped for a follow-up. Maybe that disc jockey was just making stuff up. Well, if he was, at least he had the good taste to give "Public Enemies" a plug.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

This scares me: JCVD

So there's a new movie out called "JCVD," and I'll cut off the suspenseful guessing by telling you right off it stands for "Jean Claude Van Damme." It's one of those "clever" meta concepts. JCVD plays himself embroiled in a real-life bank robbery. What scares me about this is that it sounds kind of good.

Also alarming is the high praise Lisa Schwarzbaum gives it in "Entertainment Weekly." First comes this jarring comparison:

No wonder the star's face, in deadpan repose, resembles that of Buster Keaton.

That's AFTER comparing the movie favorably to the modern classic "Being John Malkovich." Then, en route to an A- grade, she adds:

Sympathetic director Mabrouk El Mechri creates a marvelous netherworld of ambiguous scenarios, and Van Damme rises to the challenge — of acting — like the real pro he is.

Well, she sure builds this one up in only a few paragraphs. It's not just this one critic, though, as the bottom line at Rotten Tomatoes (where the fi;m currently boasts an 83% freshness score) indicates:

Consensus: JCVD is a touching, fascinating piece, with Jean-Claude Van Damme confounding all with his heartfelt performance.

Hey, other than the great fight scenes in "Bloodsport," there's not a whole lot in the Van Damme ouvre that appeals to me. I don't need to see a straight-to-video actioner in which he craks a walnut with his ass cheeks or whatever he does. But I kind of want to check this out, even if that desire fills me with shame. At least I know that since I'm lame now and rarely go to the movies, I don't need to ask you to try to talk me out of it. But when "JCVD" hits DVD--or maybe "reverse thrust kicks DVD" would be a more apt expression--I'm there!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dick Powell

Just because the screen legend isn't around to enjoy it doesn't mean we can't celebrate it. Powell, born November 14, 1904, is one of the most fascinating stars of all time--a crooner, a radio star, a hard-boiled noir icon, and more.

Check out this appreciation at She Blogged By Night a few weeks back. And then check out some of his movies, like "Cry Danger" or "Murder My Sweet" if you want to go that route; or a good old-fashioned silly musical like, well, any of his 1930s musicals if you want to go that way. And if you're lucky enough to own a decent copy of "Pitfall," watch that one and then send me a copy because I'd love to see it again.

Me, I'm going to sing "Happy Birthday" to my own framed copy of the tobacco card pictured above. Then I may sing "Fair and Warmer" or "I'll String Along with You"...but probably not to the tobacco card. That might be kind of weird.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

First Impulse: The CMA Awards

Last night was a rare weeknight when my wife and I were home together and able to watch some TV--of course, my work as a world-class mixed martial artist normally keeps me out nights--and at some point, we caught a little bit of the Country Music Association Awards telecast. Here are my unfiltered thoughts from the portion we saw.

*Mrs. Shark turns on the CMA Awards as I turn on the Internet. "Don't they have a country awards show every other month?" I ask. She doesn't answer. But I'm seriously wondering--don't they?

*Taylor Swift looks like a little kid, which I guess she sort of is. But she sounds like one, too. is there a microphone problem? Is the sound just bad? At least we know she's really singing. There are princes and princesses and what may well be unicorns. Is this the CMA Awards or the Disney Channel Awards?

*It's hard to hear Kid Rock, too, and far be it from me to complain. But again, we wonder, is there a sound issue in the arena, or is it just that we're not getting the strongest singers in the world at this point?

*George Strait performs, which is a good thing, but he's apparently hopped on the Jimmy Buffet bandwagon, which is not. My wife loves him---not just his music, but she apparently loves George Strait, as she reminds me several times during the song--but I'm disappointed by this tune. At least he's not wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. Isn't Kenny Chesney scheduled to do the token Buffet pastiche later?

*I think someone gets an award at some point. Actually, I remember several: Strait gets one while we're watching. Sugarland wins for Best Duo Vocal. I love this category. Sugarland used to have a third member, my wife tells me, but now they're all in litigation. Well, I suggest, it's a good thing they booted that third one, or they wouldn't be able to win Best Duo Vocal. This begs the question, do country duos ever find themselves meeting a really cool third person who would make a great fit and all for the band, but then they have to tell them they can't join because the Best Group Vocal category is more competitive? Carrie Underwood wins something.

*Brooks and Dunn are billed as teaming up with a country superstar for a "once in a lifetime performance." Turns out, ugh, it's just Reba. My wife informs me that they actually all toured together recently. "Well," I say, "It's once in a lifetime if you were just born this year." I'm sure our daughter would have been thrilled if we had woken her up so she could see that exciting moment. The good news is, someone turns up Reba's microphone or fixes the sound board during this song, and the audio seems much better.

*At some point in all this, I see a Jewel commercial. Because, you know, she's country now. Then as we go to a break, we see some of the stars coming up. I see something that looks suspiciously like Don Henley and can't contain my despair. "Aah!" I cry, "Not them! Anyone but the Eagles!" And then, sure enough, Anyone is announced as coming up, as well, in the form of Darius Rucker. Is everyone on the planet country now? I don't care how much "country rock" is in any of the Eagles' music, I should be able to watch a country music awards broadcast---celebrating an entire style of music I'm not all that fond of, anyway--without seeing them perform. I'd almost rather see Joe the Plumber.

*I have to admit, though, the Darius Rucker song doesn't sound all that bad.

*I could have gone on all night half paying attention to this show, but somewhere around this point, Mrs. Shark went to bed, freeing me to change the channel to a basketball game before I had to see the Eagles. What did I learn from the CMA Awards? I learned that we're all a little bit country now, that Carrie Underwood will probably win just about every award she's nominated for over the next 10 years or so, and--oh, yeah--that Vince Gill is looking more and more like John Travolta each time I see him.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

This Week in DVD

A huge week after some quiet Tuesdays. There are so many compelling DVDs on the way that I can only be reverent and hold off on the wise-ass remarks. I've wasted too much time already. Let's get to it!

Warner Brothers Homefront Collection: This set rules, even though I kind of wish it included more than 3 features. The good news is you get a few cool movies in which all the stars there in the galaxy, or whatever marketing phrase WB used, got together to put on a show for the troops. Plus extras and a new documentary, "Warners Goes to War." I love this sort of stuff.

Warner Brothers Holiday Collection 2: For me the highlight of this set is the offbeat Robert Mitchum role in "Holiday Affair." American Movie Classics used to show that one every year, I think, and for some reason it stuck with me.

Studio One Anthology: Hey, this looks pretty cool. An assortment of "Studio One" episodes are already on DVD, but Koch Vision bundles a new batch of 17 in a spiffy-looking box set--an anthology of an anthology, if you will. I think we should all support quality vintage television releases like this. By "we," I mean you because I can't afford this right now so I'll be renting the discs.

Hellboy II: You know, I liked the first one well enough, but I just couldn't work up any enthusiasm for the sequel, and I'm not sure why that is. Maybe the DVD will stoke the fires.

Father Knows Best Season 2: Though the season 1 release was marred by syndicated prints with some jarring edits, the show itself was surprisingly funny--surprising to me, at least, since I had never really seen it before. According to preliminary reports, Shout got its act together and delivered complete episodes this time, making this an attractive potential purchase.

Mr. Peepers Season 2: I DID buy season 1 of this one and enjoyed it. I'd like to hear some clearer audio this time out, but I'm really just pleasantly surprised S'Mores is back for s'more with another season of this gentle Wally Cox sitcom.

Chronological Donald Volume 4: Donald DUCK, that is. Some of you might be more intrigued by the other Disney Treasures releases this week, but I'm giving love to the duck, the myth, the legend--my favorite Disney character. I always got a kick out of his super-lame theme song on those old shorts: "Who gets stuck with all the bad luck? Nobody but Donald Duck!" Yeah,the cartoon Duck can't compare with the comic book one, and I get sick of seeing him jobbing to Chip and Dale (who have a big presence in this set), but it's still Donald.

M Squad The Complete Series: Lee Marvin as a police lieutenant fighting crime in Chicago sounds great to me. Who knows if Timeless is actually getting this massive box set out this week, but, wow, this sounds like one of the coolest of the cool this week. If only I could buy a fraction of these great DVDs this week. Hey, anyone want to send me a "review" copy or two?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Brooks on Books: Football and Television (Part II)

Here's another great book I didn't even know existed: "The 50-Year Seduction" by Keith Dunnavant. I found it on a library shelf while looking for something else, and, yes, I assure you, it IS about football. The subtitle is "How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS."

As the word "manipulated" implies, Dunnavant takes a critical stance towards the relationship of the TV networks and the sport. Early on, you almost think he's gonna really just rip everyone involved a new one, as he writes about an early decision by the NCAA to prevent Penn from making its own TV deal:

It was a despicable, shameful act of thuggery, a strong-arm tactic worthy of backalley hoodlums and pulp fiction gangsters.

Dunnavant, a veteran college football journalist and previously author of a biography of Bear Bryant, uses strong language to establish how the NCAA, fearful that television would destroy attendance, exerted power it didn't really have in a manner that violated anti-trust law as well as basic American tenets in order to restrict the sport's presence on the airwaves. However, he lays out the entire history of the college game on the tube without letting his sympathies overwhelm the facts. When a group of big-time football powers break off from the NCAA's TV negotiations to form the CFA and make their own deals with the networks, Dunnavant frequently points out how much money they wound up sacrificing, at least in the short term, by creating arguably an oversaturation of the sport. He clearly recognizes their right to do so, but he relates the consequences, even the negative ones.

The real theme of Dunnavant's thorough but always compelling history is the significant effect TV money had on the game. He illustrates how the influx of dollars made the big schools beloved by the networks get even bigger. The skyrocketing rights fees collected by the universities had ramifications on every single aspect of the game, from the number of scholarships awarded to the bowl system to scheduling and the rise of the megaconferences we have today. It's all connected, and it's all directly related to television. Dunnavant does an excellent job of explaining how we got from the old "amateur" days of college football to the corporate machine we have now, a machine which revolves around the notorious BCS, a made-for-television construct which purports to decide a national champion.

Last week I read rumblings that the TV contract for the BCS games is in play again, with the NCAA possibly angling to get the package away from Fox and on more traditional gridiron broadcaster ABC. "The 50-Year Seduction" was published in 2004, but it is no less relevant today, and it's an must-read for college football fans in general as well as those with an interest in the sport's history on television.

Brooks on Books: Football and Television (Part 1)

You can't have one without the other, right? I read two fascinating books that cover the relationship between the sport and the medium, each with its own distinct angle.

Terry O'Neil's 1989 autobiography, "The Game Behind the Game : High Stakes, High Pressure in Television Sports" covers how professional football is presented on a network television broadcast. O'Neil is a former director and producer at ABC Sports and CBS Sports; after this book's publication, he went on to head NBC Sports and was the brains behind the notorious "plausibly live" Olympic coverage in Barcelona that ushered in an era of tape-delay to maximize U.S. ratings. He then joined the ownership of the New Orleans Saints and now...Well, his Google trail has gone cold. Anyone know what he's up to these days?

"The Game Behind the Game" is a great read. I was lucky enough to grab it for 67 cents in a used book shop, but if you can track it down, it's worth much more. It's not all about broadcasting the NFL--he starts the book with compelling stories about the infamous 1972 Munich Olympic Games and has memorable stories about the Pan-Am Games--but that is the heart of his account. He gives himself a lot of credit for developing many of the innovations we take for granted now, but he apparently deserves it, and he is also honest about his mistakes.

O'Neil discusses the development of the Pat Summerall/John Madden broadcast team, the telestrator known as Madden's CBS Chalkboard, and how he introduced the notion of comprehensive game-week preparation for Sunday games. It's a given now that announcers and key technical personnel will arrive early on site and set up shots, interview coaches, etc., but O'Neil shows us how a complacent CBS could let a director arrive in town on the day of a playoff game to guide the day's coverage.

Anyone interested in sports on TV should read this book. You get a reminder of just how passionate and good John Madden was in his prime, as he's a vivid presence here. It's great reading about how committed he was to relating the essence of the sport to the viewers, and it's a riot learning how hypercompetitive he was in the touch football games the crew played.

You get all sorts of entertaining and insightful glimpses into the behind-the-scenes aspects of TV sports production, both during the game and in the boardrooms. All this, plus a little gossip about legendary figures like Howard Cosell and Brent Musburger. O'Neil knows TV, and he knows football, and his well-written memoir is essential. I only wish he had done a follow-up with more details on other sports, as well as his tenure at NBC.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Achieving Comedy Balance

Contrary to previous speculation (see the comments), I'm not a 65-year-old female; that doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good vintage TV show or 5 every now and then, though. In fact, as current TV comedy becomes cruder and cruder, I like to go back and revisit the old days just to kind of balance myself a bit.

Now, this is NOT a post about how depraved society is and how its going to hell in a handbasket, there are no moral standards, etc. That's all true, of course, but I don't care, because I think many of today's crude shows are damn funny (that's right, I said, "damn"). It's just that after the Wednesday/Thursday trifecta of "South Park," "The Sarah Silverman Program," and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," I feel a little dirty.

Yep, I'm in the habit of watching that trio each week, and I find them humorous and overall entertaining, but there's no denying that each one is a little over the top in terms of language, subject matter, and bodily fluids. Any single half-hour selected from among these might be enough to make me a little unclean. But since their new episodes all premiere within a span of barely more than 24 hours, I wind up watching all 3 by the end of the week. After running that gauntlet, hoo, boy. I don't walk around my house throwing out the "s-word" to my wife and daughter, but I do have more than enough edge to last a week, let alone the following weekend.

So I often seek balance, some kind of older, less crude comedy to counter the modern stuff I see on cable. Lately it's to the DVDs I go! Some critics contend that old sitcoms like "Father Knows Best" epitomize bland 1950s conformity, but I find the world they represent a charming one, a world I certainly don't mind visiting. I enjoyed renting Shout's season 1 "FKB" discs and look forward to maybe buying the upcoming season 2 (reportedly uncut episodes this time).

"My Three Sons" would be part of my comedy balance rotation if Paramount hadn't botched the DVDs by butchering the music. However, I still have options like "Hazel" and "Ozzie and Harriet." I might rent some more "Family Affair" episodes. "Make Room for Daddy" is available, and there's a "Donna Reed Show" collection now. "Bachelor Father" is on RTN weekday mornings.

I don't claim that watching these more innocent sitcoms will cleanse my spirit or make me a better man. I just think that man cannot live on bedwetting and bedpooping jokes alone, and after the tag team combination of "South Park," "Silverman," and "Sunny," it's often a relief to put on a show and not have to worry about, say, Don Defore beating a guy unconscious with a hammer. It's all about balance.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Half-Assed Gourmet: Endless Shrimp

Two words I hear every autumn bring out the Homer Simpson in me: ENDLESS SHRIMP. Say what you will about Red Lobster, but it's food sure does the job for me, especially when it's ENDLESS. If ever there's a time for the old "seafood diet" joke--you know, "he sees food, he eats it"--it's when this is going on.

The Shark family enjoyed a feast there a few weeks ago, and while I was the only one (over)indulging--my wife doesn't eat seafood, and my baby daughter is more into rice cereal than shellfish at this stage of her life--we all had a good time.

By the way, if you're already about to comment that America is too fat and we hardly need all-you-can-eat restaurants and by the way I could stand to lose a few pounds myself, well, please don't. I ask for so little in life. The Pittsburgh Pirates haven't been in the playoffs since 1992, we still don't have a legitimate definitive DVD collection of "Get a Life," and I'm not going back to Aruba anytime soon. So give me my Endless Shrimp once or twice a year.

Fortunately, this most recent visit, two factors combined to make me feel like less of a glutton: One, a friend was there to share the burden of Endless Shrimp, a fellow who understands the nuances of the meal--like, don't fill up on the shrimp pasta, sample all choices before getting seconds of any particular shrimp offering, etc. More significant was the tidbit a shrimprunner gave us. By the way, I made up that term, but I think it's better than server or waiter. After all, Endless Shrimp is so exciting that Red Lobster can't even rely on its servers to bring the dishes to the table--hence the shrimprunner.

Anyway, when one of the ladies at our table remarked on the amount of crustacean being hauled out from the kitchen, the shrimprunner (have you noticed I like that term?) said it was nothing. One individual, in fact, had recently indulged in 35 servings. 35! My friend and I combined came nowhere near that total. Figure an average of about a dozen little creatures per serving, and that's 420 shrimp. There are sharks that don't eat that much in a year! Wait, sharks do eat shrimp, right? Is anyone here a marine biologist?

Naturally, this intriguing news only made us hungry for more info, so we pounced on that shrimprunner as if he were the shrimp rather than merely the man who set it on the table. Did he take any breaks? How many servings at a time did he get? Was there one type that he favored--like, did he get 20 helpings of coconut shrimp?

The questions continued, and the shrimprunner crept off like he was sorry he even brought it told us that in the first place. I don't think he answered any of our queries. Well, why bring something like that up if you're not willing to elaborate on it? You can't just bait us with a tale of a man who ate 35 servings of shrimp and expect us to not ask some follow-up questions. I guess he thought he could get in there, wow us with his Endless Shrimp trivia, and then get right back out. Actually, I guess that is what he wound up doing. Come to think of it, we didn't see him again.

It mattered not, ultimately, because, aye, the shrimp's the thing, not the mythology, and though I didn't enter the lore of that local Red Lobster with my efforts, I got my money's worth and filled my belly. Yet I was able to walk out of the restaurant with some measure of dignity, knowing that while I consumed a hell of a lot more shrimp than I needed, I sure didn't have 35 servings of it. I highly recommend Endless Shrimp, with the new Cajun Shrimp a solid if unspectacular addition to the roster.

Blue Morning, Blue Day

Congratulations to the Penn State Nittany Lions on a great National Championship run, one which, sadly, is likely kaput after yesterday's 24-23 loss to Iowa. Now, I'm not going to argue that PSU still belongs in the top handful of elite teams that deserves a title shot, but I am disappointed that the upset will only "prove" to Big Ten haters how weak the conference is. In the SEC or Big 12, a top-ranked team losing by one point on the road to a team with a top-ten scoring defense would be seen as evidence of "how deep the league is." In Penn State's case, it's seen as evidence that the top teams in the league are overrated.

Oh, well. It was a good season. I say "was" because while I'll be thrilled if the Nits can win out, go 11-1, win the conference, and play in a BCS bowl, at this moment it's anticlimactic after thinking about championship scenarios the last few weeks. This is the problem with college football: one loss, and it's over. It's going to be difficult for me to muster much enthusiasm for the title picture now that my team is all but out of it. In a different world, Penn State would have a chance to make a playoff system as the Big Ten representative, and there would still be hope.

Now, as commentator Bob Griese said on the broadcast yesterday, it's time to "wish" for the Rose Bowl. Yippee. The Most Boring of All Bowls, as I call it, is not much of a prize to me. Don't get me wrong, though, it's still a fantastic season for Penn State, especially considering most observers had the university going 8-4 or 9-3 at best.

We just need a playoff. Normally, I think government needs to butt out of sports and stay out, but in this case, hell with it--let's get it done, President-elect Obama!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Thinking of Linking

Darn it, just because the Internet moves so blamed quickly (unless you have dial-up) doesn't mean we have to abandon everything that was published more than a day or two ago, does it? Answer: No.

*I would have liked to have written more about Rudy Ray Moore, but 15-20 years after discovering him, I still kind of wonder what the heck he was about, and this is from someone who has a box set of his DVDs. Here's an "L.A. Times" obit that does manage to explain some of the appeal of the Godfather of Rap.

*Sitcoms Online recently conducted a great interview with Lydia Cornell, AKA "the hot blonde on Too Close for Comfort." Cornell really just took the questions and ran and ran with them. The actress has a lot of interesting things to say, but unfortunately, she makes Ted Knight sound like a real ass. Well, maybe it's actually kind of cool to read that Knight's ego was as big as some of his characters', but though Cornell takes pains to praise the guy, just relating her experience on the show gets a certain message across. The whole piece is a good read for fans of 80s sitcoms and sex symbols, though.

*Hopefully you already have the excellent Greenbriar Picture Shows bookmarked, but in case you don't, here's a provocative piece about the Little Rascals and the recent DVD set.

*Writer Steven Grant shares his enlightened take on price increases in comic books here.

*And this Q&A from "Variety" with showrunners Craig Thomas and Carter Bays is a must-read for fans of "How I Met Your Mother."

Thursday, November 6, 2008

It rhymes with "City," anyway...

By now you've probably heard the news that Circuit City is closing 155 more stores as the troubled retailer struggles to stay solvent, or at least not totally unsolvent. This news summons mixed emotions.

Apart from grabbing a few decent deals on DVDs and visiting a few good CD sales, I've never seen visiting a Circuit City as a great experience. I dislike their store layout, I haven't received great service there, and I don't care for some of their policies on the corporate level. Just look at some more of the articles with the "Circuit City" tag on The Consumerist and see some of the sleazy stuff that goes on at this electronics chain. Heck, look at this from that same article linked above:

In classy fashion, Chicago CC employees were told the news at what was billed as a "holiday kickoff" meeting that instead became a "holiday layoff" meeting.

On the other hand, I feel for the employees who are losing their jobs right before their holidays. Plus it's yet another retail outlet going down the tubes. It's already established that we can't buy CDs anymore. I was at Target the other day with a few minutes to browse the music section, and I only needed a few seconds. Best Buy's selection has shrunk as well.

But what about DVDs? Right now, Blu-Ray seems to be a big thing--that's what they want us to think, at least--but what if that doesn't catch on? Even the home video software sections of retail chains are shrinking as the stores try to push high-end items like HDTVs. Oh, I know that when "The Dark Knight" comes out in a few weeks, you'll be able to buy it at anywhere from Rite-Aid to Linens and Things, but this isn't so for lesser known titles, let alone "catalogue" movies.

Are we heading to a point where online outlets like Amazon aren't just the best places to buy most DVDs, but the only ones? And if their competitors keep dropping out, will Amazon still need to offer such good pricing and service?

So, yes, the slow demise of Circuit City troubles me on one level. But mostly I can't help but feel this awful company deserves some bad karma. Most importantly, though, I do hope for the best for the poor employees who are getting pink-slipped.

This Week in DVD

Get Smart: This spy spoof follows in the great tradition of the recent "Johnny English," the original "Casino Royale," and, eh, probably some old TV show did it, too, at some time or other.

Popeye the Sailor Volume 3: This is an instance of Warners downsizing a classic cartoon collection, going from 4 discs to two discs, but apparently not sacrificing too much in the way of quality and extras.

Budd Boetticher Box Set: Talk about an inelegant title. That isn't my informal way of describing this collection of Westerns beloved by film snobs the world over (and Clint Eastwood, as I found out in a TCM documentary of director Boetticher). That's actually what it's called: "Budd Boetticher Box Set." I know the important thing here is that Sony is finally exploring its film library to such an extent, but...gee, why not "The Budd Boetticher Collection"? "The Budd Boetticher Special Edition"? "Double B's Western Roundup?"

Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas: Ain't no hole in the washtub! Here's the deal: The previous version of this Jim Henson classic was edited--mainly, Kermit the Frog's scenes were removed. This "new" version is evidently a just reissue of that 2005 DVD. I've held off on buying it, but I'd love to see this again after enjoying it as a child year after year on HBO. It's been so long since I've seen it, I think I can get it without being irritated at the missing footage.

Return to Sleepaway Camp: I only include this because I'm somehow fascinated by this part of the description on the movie's Netflix page: "Vincent Pastore ("The Sopranos") and Isaac Hayes ("South Park") also star in this horrific thriller from writer-director Robert Hiltzik."
Together at last!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Brooks on Books: God Save the Fan

Will Leitch is the creator and former editor of popular irreverent sports blog Deadspin, and this fun, breezy book looks like his way of summarizing as much of his work there as he can before moving on. Because "God Save the Fan" is an extension of that blog, I can't help but view the book in that light. In this medium, the material loses some of the advantages the Internet offers, and it's a little too light to be worth the hardback cover price. But that's not really a knock, as I think just about any hardcover book is overpriced these days. Leitch is an entertaining writer, and "God Save the Fan" is a fast read for a hardcore sports fan willing to laugh at his favorite players, teams, and himself.

It's a collection of short pieces, many of them maybe a bit too short, about various humorous aspects of sports, often expanding on material from the site. Those who aren't familiar with the legends of Ron Mexico or Carl Monday will get the scoop here. You might ask, though, can't you get this all on the Internet? Well, you could get the facts there, yes, but Leitch has done a good job of turning the basic material into an actual book you can hold in your hands and take with you--er, wherever you take books with you. Hey, you're a book person or not, and if you are, you'll appreciate this on some level.

Plus Deadspin somehow became about the comments as much as the articles and links, and wading through the one-upsmanship and efforts to score points in the reader responses gets too much for me (though it's easy to ignore it, of course). Those of you who enjoy Deadspin may miss that interactive aspect here. You may also miss the ability to click on links for more detail, as well as, more importantly, pictures. There are a few photos and illustrations in the book, but when Leitch makes, say, a physical description of news reporter Carl Monday, it begs for visual evidence for those who haven't seen it--or, really, even for those who have. And why is there no index?

The book does resemble the Internet in at least one unfortunate manner: It could have used some tighter editing. Recurring themes like the frequent masturbation references are more repetitive in book form, and some big errors appear, like having the Steelers play the Panthers in Super Bowl XXX.

Leitch's frequent self-deprecation is charming, and he begs off being considered a member of the sports media. In fact, he often seems to avoid the label of "writer," referring to himself as a typist. He's a funny guy, though, and he lays out his opinions and experiences in a smooth, coherent manner. To be sure, he's no traditional sportswriter--he declares that he has no desire to be--and this is no traditional sports journalism. If Dave Kindred or Jimmy Cannon or Shirley Povich ever wrote a paragraph that ended with..

Their back looks like your face did when all you could think of was your algebra teacher while masturbating into a sock (and by "when" I mean "Tuesday").

well, then I don't want to know about it.

That kind of thing aside, Leitch also delivers some provocative but insightful angles on things we take for granted. For example, the standard wise-ass slant on "God in sports" is to mock athletes who thank the Lord in postgame interviews, wondering if God hates the losing team for making them fumble at the 1-yard-line or whatever. While Leitch acknowledges the sarcastic angle, he also spends a chapter laying out the reason why many if not most openly Christian athletes thank God in their interviews, and he does this in an evenhanded yet still compelling way. I don't mean to condescend by highlighting this as an impressive, mature essay in the book, but, you know, I just want to point out there's more to "God Save the Fan" than jokes about why the author swears off reporting after an encounter with future NBA player Robert Traylor's penis.

I'd recommend waiting for the paperback if you're thrifty, but if you enjoyed Leitch's work on Deadspin for years without shelling out any coin, you might want to support him by buying his fun book.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting is FUNdamental

Though I live within walking distance of my polling place, since I couldn't get back to sleep this morning (I wish I could say I was surging with the adrenaline of FREEDOM, but really I've just been sick), I took the opportunity to get a lift from my wife and went to the elementary school at about 8:00 A.M.

I don't think I've seen a line so long since I last went to Disney World, and here they didn't even have Donald or Mickey working the line to keep you entertained (Insert your own joke about "Goofy" being on the ballot with the politician of your choice). I don't think it's unreasonable to complain about long lines, lack of parking, and time waiting at polling places. This may be the part when Walter Cronkite shakes his finger at me and reminds me of the hardships people have gone through just to be able to vote, but I can't help but wonder if we couldn't all find a way to do this more efficiently.

I have the luxury of a job that lets me go stand in line for however long in the morning, and my wife was able to get our child to day care. But what about people with jobs, kids, lives that don't allow such an easy path to the booth? I guess that's what absentee/early voting is for, and if you took advantage of that, more power to you, though I must say there's something about the rush of casting an actual Election Day ballot.

The line moved steadily, at least, and I had a book to read, so I didn't really care. What shook me out of my novel was the battle axe posted at the front of the line. This Vote Nazi (how's that for a contradiction in terms?) stood vigilant, guarding the all-purpose room from interlopers who might otherwise overwhelm the registration confirmation tables. Every now and then--and by that I mean 30 seconds--she'd abandon her post to march down the line and shout, "E-K! E-K!" I guess this part of the alphabet is a lonely one in my area, surname-wise, because barely anybody seemed to come up there. Yet still she repeated her chant, and it was almost always "E-K," never, oh, say, "A-D" or the exotic-sounding "S-Z."

After sneaking past the Vote Nazi while she was on another quest for the Ellises and the Kaminskys, I found my table and got my ballot coupon, which I then took to yet another table for an actual ballot. I loved the "paper or electronic" option because going old-school let me skip the line for the booths and sit down at a table with my old-fAYshioned (as the late Dave Thomas of Wendy's used to say) paper deal.

Filling in circles makes me feel like I'm actually doing something. I don't know, it's just more academic and deliberate than punching a chad or pushing a button. I only wish there were #2 pencils instead of pens.

And that, citizens, is how I voted this morning. In closing, let me share with you a fine piece of electioneering I saw in one of the hallways of this elementary school. As part of a class project, students made campaign posters in a presidential race in "Everytown." Easily the most impressive was the one promoting "Sam for President." Sam's simple yet comprehensive slogan was:

"A vote for Sam is a vote for Sam."

I think this just may be the best campaign slogan of all time.

Monday, November 3, 2008

WGN does it again with Lost 80s Week

If you're not paying attention to WGN America, you're missing on out some cool stuff. In addition to the Outta Sight Retro Night action on Sundays, the channel has been throwing in some fun theme weeks, most recently 4 days of "lost" sitcoms from the eighties.

The programs, all from production company DLT entertainment, were "Three's a Crowd," "The Ropers," "Too Close for Comfort," and "Check it Out." I would only consider the last one a truly "lost" show, as I think it's been M.I.A. since USA first aired it, but still, I commend WGN for the fun gimmick and for giving some play to series that have not been run into the ground lately.

"Crowd" is pretty much "Three's Company Lite," for better or for worse. "The Ropers" is a bad show, but I find myself strangely compelled to watch whenever someone unearths it. In addition to the classic Norman Fell shenanigans, there's a look at a younger Jeffrey Tambor and perhaps the single lamest credit/theme song sequence in TV history.

I enjoyed seeing "Too Close for Comfort" again, not because it's a particularly funny sitcom, but because Ted Knight's grumpy mugging amuses me, especially when directed at the lame foil played by Jm J. Bullock. Imagine my delight, then, to see via WGN a clip show episode in which the characters find different reasons to ask, "Remember that time Monroe..." so we could flashback and enjoy a different generic sitcom situation in which Knight's Henry Rush and Monroe found themselves entangled. Of course, it's one of those episodes where at the end we see that, aw, Henry likes Monroe after all, and everybody hugs. Sitcom mediocrity at its "best."

The worst of the 4 "lost" shows is undoubtedly "Check It Out," a Canadian Don Adams vehicle that should have been impounded before it crossed the border. The only reason to watch this one today is to remind yourself of the innocent mid-eighties, a time when a series could get away with a nonironic white rap theme song.

May I suggest some more obscure sitcoms for a future theme week? If WGN wants to go for quality, how about something like "Police Squad" or "Sledge Hammer"? If kitsch is the goal, a lineup of "Small Wonder," "The Charmings," "She's the Sheriff," and "He's the Mayor" would do the job.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cultureshark Remembers S.D. Jones

Longtime WWF performer S.D. Jones died recently, and though he was a forgotten man in recent years, he received tons of exposure from being around in the so-called expansion era, as Vince McMahon took his father's wrestling group from a Northeast-based concern to a huge promotion with international reach. "Special Delivery" seemed to be on TV just about every week as the WWF became part of mainstream culture.

If the guy got his butt kicked just about every week, well, that doesn't mean he is any less deserving of our respect, does it? It's tempting to write something about how the eternal loser will finally be at peace now, or that he "lost one more match," or to go the other route and talk about how he was more of a winner than anyone in the federation, or something like that. But really, I just want to say he seemed like a cool guy, and in his own way he was a vital part of 1980s WWF programming, and therefore my childhood.

S.D. was actually a champion before becoming a preliminary wrestler/jobber/enhancement talent, but I knew him as the guy who either got squashed by King Kong Bundy or wrestled interminable 20-minute matches against the likes of Rene Goulet on "Prime Time Wrestling." Every now and then, he'd team up with a superstar like Andre the Giant against, say, Bundy and Big John Studd, and while it was nice to see him in that spot, there wasn't much suspense as to who was gonna get the beating in THAT match.

His claim to fame in the Modern WWF era was losing in what was billed as "record time" to Bundy at Wrestlemania II. In typical pro wrestling fashion, the match time was announced as 9 seconds, even though if you watch it today and pay attention, you realize it's practically longer than your average Duran Duran video.

I don't know if he had a finishing move per se, other than a rollup or a devastating headbutt (in pro wrestling, anyone with pigment darker than Pat Boone has an indestructible skull). I do know he had a mysterious crevice in his back that always made me and my friends wonder. What was the deal with that dent? Why didn't he use it to his advantage and hide some foreign objects in there? Just imagine how much we would have speculated about that thing in his back if he hadn't spent so much time getting pinned on it.

He lost his share of matches, all right, but he was a reliable performer and a mainstay on a lot of popular WWE shows. As either an acknowledgement of his popularity or a tribute to his good-soldier status, LJN made a doll of Jones in its popular Wrestling Superstars line. It's a great likeness, and I'm proud to say I used my own S.D. figure for more than just getting beaten up by my King Kong Bundy figure.

(Thanks to the website A Tribute to the WWF's LJN Action Figures for the great scan)

Should You Watch: Life on Mars

I wanted to give this one two full episodes, but I bailed on the ABC version of the BBC cop show with a twist about 10 minutes into the second one. The pilot was OK, but I couldn't shake the feeling I had seen it already and had seen it done better. Still, I thought it merited another shot. But in that follow-up, I got so sick of the "Hey, folks, it's 1973!" references crammed into the script that I gave up.

Pretty much everything about the remake is much, much less subtle than the original: The acting, the cinematography (the whole show is shot in a haze meant to suggest the era), the storytelling, and, yes, the establishment of setting. There are ways to remind us we're in 1973 without making characters say awkward things like, "That has about as much a chance of happening as Roe vs. Wade being overturned."

You should watch "Life on Mars" if:

*You have never seen the original.
*You experience severe "Sopranos" and "The Wire" withdrawal (But while Michael Imperioli is a big part of the show, my man Clarke Peters is apparently much less so).
*You Love the 70s.
*You can't get enough of the classic rock and glam rock megahits from the era.
*You think Harvey Keitel's presence in weekly network TV is long overdue.
*You get a kick out of seeing cops beat the hell out of suspects and use questionable tactics to gather evidence (not that I don't).