Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Brooks on Books: "Carry on, Jeeves" by P.G. Wodehouse

There are a lot of people out there who know a whole lot about humor writer P.G. Wodehouse, and I won't pretend to be anything but a novice. But, boy, I had such a good time reading my first Wodehouse book that I had to say something about it.

While there is a lot of biographical and bibliographical info about this British author, it's tough to find authoritative statements about where to begin if you want to enjoy the work. even if you narrow it down and decide you're interested in his most famous creations, Bertie Wooster and his amazing butler Jeeves, you'll find a bunch of people saying, "You can't go wrong starting anywhere," and a good number declaring, "Might as well start from the beginning," as apparently some stories and novels reference earlier ones.

Well, I forgot how I settled on "Carry On, Jeeves," but I was certainly not disappointed by this hilarious book. Wodehouse's prose, most of it delivered by Wooster, is of a certain British style, and you'll know almost right away if you're into it or not. Me, I was hooked early, and I loved this collection of stories (many of which referenced others in the same volume). In "Carry On," you get the apparent Secret Origin of how Jeeves becomes employed by Wooster, a change-of-pace tale narrated by Jeeves, and many other fine short stories.

There is a definite formula here. Virtually all these stories feature Bertie Wooster (or a friend or cousin of his) getting in some kind of socially awkward predicament involving aunts, uncles, and/or clingy women of some type. Then Jeeves, often after apparently coming up empty, concocts a deft scheme to save the day, one usually dependent on some coincidental relationship or situation of which he is aware and is able to exploit.

Because this formula is so consistent, I actually put aside "Carry On, Jeeves" a few stories in, fearing I would burn out. I figured these stories were best read with some space in between so that they would not seem repetitive.

You know what, though? Wodehouse's use of language and his impeccable command of his character's voices are so irresistible, the stories don't seem at all repetitive. I quickly picked the book back up after a day or two and tore through the rest of it. It's just that good.

Maybe after a bunch of these, I would start to worry about the formula, but that sure isn't a consideration yet. I may find out soon because I intend to read a lot more Wodehouse, including a lot more Jeeves and Wooster. "Carry On, Jeeves" pulled me into a world I look forward to exploring.

Monday, December 29, 2008

This Week in DVD

This period between two major holidays creates some bizarre release dates, so much like last week's post, consider this a catch-all for the DVDs that are coming out over the next week or so.

Eagle Eye: Jamie Foxx tries to catch lightning in a bottle again as he stars in this biopic of the guy who sang "Save Tonight."

The Duchess: Keira Knightley in a period piece about longing and love. A real change of pace for her.

Resident Evil Degeneration: An ad for this came on TV the other day, and my Dad got excited until he realized it wasn't a game. "Aw, that's a movie? Ah, never mind." I thought it was funny that it looked like a cool game but a crummy film.

Ghost Town: The crowds for this movie were so small, each theater felt like a...OK, I'm sure that joke was used a thousand times already. But while this romantic comedy does look a tad limp, how bad it can be with Ricky Gervais?

Nip/Tuck Season 5: Hey, I think this is the season where those two docs really act like a-holes and get into all kinds of shocking sexual situations.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Classic TV Christmas Festival Part 7: Good Times

OK, "Good Times" may not be some people's idea of a "classic," but like "What's Happening!!" it was a big part of my misspent youth. Watching it now, I have to recalibrate myself to take its brand of comedy. It's one of those shows where every single character at almost every single entrance has to deliver the same type of sassy remark. It's funny if you can take it in stride, but grating in large doses...and a lot less tolerable once John Amos left.

The show had several Christmas-themed episodes, but recently I watched "Sometimes There's No Bottom in the Bottle."

Now, what the show wants you to focus on is the Evans family cousin Naomi's drinking problem. The 16-year-old is sequestering herself in the bathroom and hitting the liquor early and often, and it takes a long time for anyone besides Thelma to notice what's going on, and even she kind of stumbles on it.

You expect this to be a Very Special Episode, but there isn't much time for Very Special Messages, what with the ongoing Christmas season celebrations in the household. So while Naomi's unintentionally hilarious drunk scenes are amusing, this episode stands out today for 3 reasons:

1) Thelma sure is a fox in those old "Good Times" episodes, isn't she?

2) As the adults in the house (Yes, I guess I can call Wilona an adult) set a good example by celebrating James' Christmas bonus with a round of booze, they discover someone's replaced the good stuff with water. What's great about this scene is that while an irritated James wonders who would do such a thing, Florida is more concerned with something else: "Who put a glass back in the cupboard without washing it?" she asks, astonished. Oh, it may be cause for concern that one of the kids is sneaking alcohol, but first things first--who isn't busing their dishes?

3) Naomi's domination of the single bathroom in the apartment forces a frantic Michael to wait outside when he really "has to go." This scene gives the great Ralph Carter a chance to display his genius for physical comedy.

OK, I admit I'm only including that last item because I want to see what the Ralph Carter statement looks like in print.

Classic TV Christmas Festival Part 6: The Flintstones and Buffalo Bill

You might think these two shows couldn't be more dissimilar, but think again. Here are just a few of the ties that bind "The Flintstones" with "Buffalo Bill."

*They're both half-hour shows.
*They're both comedies.
*Each had a Christmas episode that is now available on DVD.
*Each had a Christmas episode that was padded and insubstantial enough to the point where I can't justify a distinct blog entry for either.

I'm not complaining about "Bill's" "Have Yourself a Very Degrading Episode," because I'm just thankful the series made it to DVD. It's not a bad installment per se. It's just not as sharp as the series is overall, and I wonder if it's one of those "Just had to do a Christmas show" deals, something contrived just to fit the season. The storyline revolves on a Big Reveal that was surely funnier and more shocking back then, and even Dabney Coleman's reactions (and his subsequent squirming in the final scene as he tries to deflect the situation) aren't enough to make this anything more than a disappointing Christmas episode when seen out of the series context.

"A Flintstones Christmas" doesn't quite have the same psychosexual angst, but it is also stretched a bit thin. There's a nice story in which Fred becomes a department store Santa (incidentally, "Macyrock"=not one of the series' more clever brand name substitutions) but winds up getting some help in his own house from the REAL St. Nick. I enjoyed this one as a kid, and I loved Fred's rendition of his "Merry Christmas is my favorite time of year" song.

Looking at it for the first time in years, though (I actually watched it on Boomerang, not on DVD), I'm disappointed at how padded it feels. Considering the show only had this one Xmas episode during its original run, you'd think they could have packed this one with yuletide fun without resorting to Fred singing not one, not twice, but 3 different times. It's an enjoyable way to get in the holiday spirit, though, and maybe I'm being a bit grouchy.

That's about all I have to say about "The Flintstones" and "Buffalo Bill," but perhaps I'll make an extended thesis comparing the two shows my big priority in 2009.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Classic TV Christmas Festival Part 5: The Dick Van Dyke Show

"The Alan Brady Show Presents" is one of those "DVD" episodes that basically lets the cast put on a little mini-revue. This time, of course, it's a Christmas theme, with the setup being that Brady thought the holiday presents a perfect opportunity for the writers and their families to put on a show for the viewers.

Somehow I doubt that would happen today. Can you imagine Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer taking a week off from "Two and a Half Men" so that the head writer and his wife could do a soft-shoe routine?

It's a fun episode, but what really interests me is the performance of Richie Petrie, who gets a prime solo spotlight to sing "The Little Drummer Boy." I think it's a fairly common sentiment among "DVD" fans that Larry Mathews, AKA Rich, is not the most, uh, sophisticated actor on the show. I can't help but wonder what dialogue led to his role in this episode. Just picture a couple show bigwigs brainstorming, whether it be Carl Reiner, credited episode scribes Sam Denoff and/or Bill Persky, or whoever.

"Hey, are we gonna give Richie something to do in this one?"
"Well, we said writers and their families, so maybe we should."
"Yeah, it's Christmas, and the kid should be there."
"Well, we can't give Larry too much to do, you know, because--"
"I know, I know. But he's a cute kid, and people eat up cute kids around Christmastime."
"We could give him a song."
"A song? Can he sing?"
"I don't know, but how hard can it be?"
"Oh, yeah, sure, no pressure there. Why don't we make him go out and do it all by himself, too, without Dick or Mary?"
"Yeah, great idea. Why don't we give him a real solemn number, too, so all the attention is on him the whole time."
"Yeah, and we'll make it one that exposes him if he CAN'T sing--like Little Drummer Boy?"
[brief pause]
"Yeah, right."
"Ok, seriously, guys, what can we put in that slot?"

Only they got stuck for time and had to go with that idea after all. Could this be what happened?

Hey, I don't mean to bag on the child actor, and his musical number is a little rough, but it's sweet. It's a nice, quiet several minutes in a fun but sometimes wacky episode, and I'm glad it's there.

But I do wonder if poor Larry Mathews was cool with it.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Gift GETTING Guide--selections from my wish list

You may be saying to yourself, "Well, Mr. Shark, I loved those gift-giving ideas you shared the other day, but what about you. What do YOU want for Christmas?"

I'm glad you asked, and I'm glad to share some ideas. These aren't necessarily the only gifts I'd like or the ones I want most, but they're a representative sample of some of the junk I ask for.

Now, let me get this out of this way first: Yes, I know the economy is hurting and we're all panicking, and I don't mean to promote selfishness and greed. But if we stop buying things for each other, even things that aren't necessities, the spiral only continues. And these aren't things I expect to get, just things it would be nice to have. I already have a loving family and my health (except for this nagging cold), and I'm happy even without this frivolous stuff.

But, boy, would I love to get...

Movies on DVD: I mentioned the Touch of Evil package the other day, but I also have my eye on the new L.A. Confidential Special Edition. I enjoy the VCI noir/crime B-movie collections, and I think by now there must be about 5 or 6 I don't have.
Is it just me or did Warners not deliver a noir box set this year? Well, they did give us a Gangsters Collection, Volume 3, to be exact, and, oh, how I'd love that, though I can wait till its inevitable big price drop. Plus their Warner Brothers and the Homefront Collection is an eventual must for my OWN collection.
I'm also behind on my Sony chronological 3 Stooges discs, my Popeye collections, and my Looney Tunes sets.

TV on DVD: I'm a big fan of the Abbott and Costello Show, and there are two big volumes' worth of DVDs collecting the entire series. I mentioned the Mr. Peepers Season 2 box the other day. The Father Knows Best Season 2 set intrigues me. If money were no object, I'd love to finally get that Twilight Zone Definitive Collection.

Books: Somehow I have yet to purchase the latest Chris Elliott comic novel, Into Hot Air. There's a well-received new biography of legendary pro wrestling innovator Gorgeous George and an acclaimed autobio by Bret "the Hitman" Hart.

I love just about all of the ongoing hardcover reprint series bringing back vintage comic strips. I am collecting Peanuts, Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon, and Popeye...and I'd love to start on the Beetle Bailey, Little Orphan Annie, and Terry & the Pirates editions. And those Showcase and Essential editions reprinting vintage DC and Marvel, respectively, are always welcome on my bookshelves.
And there's always a ton of baseball, history, and movie books I want. I just need time to read them all...

Music: I'm not that hip when it comes to new music, but there are plenty of discs I need from artists I like, such as Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams, Butch Walker, and Ben Folds. And I just discovered this cool-looking Easybeats greatest hits disc.

Do I NEED all this, or even any of this? Nah. But any of it will make me happy. Oh, and as I alluded to when listing some books, "time enough at last" to enjoy the stuff I DO have would be a great gift, too.

I hope each of you get something cool under your tree this year! Have a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Classic TV Christmas Festival Part 4: Have Gun Will Travel

You might not see Paladin and think, "Hey, now THERE'S an ideal earthly personification of the Christmas spirit," but in the first-season episode "The Hanging Cross," the man in black succeeds in giving a community a big ol' heaping dose of yuletide warmth.

It's Christmastime, and a rancher played by Ed Binns has taken a boy from a local Indian tribe, a boy he claims is the son he saw abducted years ago. He had hired Paladin to find the lad, but now that he thinks he found him, he tries to stiff the gunslinger. While Paladin is quickly learning what a jerk this rancher is, word comes that the Shoshone are on their way back to get the kid, and then it's clear our man could be useful as a translator.

At this point, Paladin says, "I normally translate for free, but since you're such an major league a-hole, I'm charging you what you originally agreed to get me, bee-yotch." Well, that's the gist of it, at least.

What follows is a story of tension between the forces of revenge and anger on one side and negotiation and goodwill on the other. The conflict isn't just between Native Americans and the ranch community, but within the groups as well. Jolly old Paladin provides eloquent reminders of the meaning of Christmas as he tries to convince Binns and the ranchers not to attack the Shoshone.

But forget this story, though it's a good one; and forget the supporting cast, though it's a treat to see old hand Don Beddoe as Binns' beleaguered foreman and Johnny Crawford (later the Rifleman's son) as the boy whose heritage is in question. No, what I really want to see is something this episode doesn't provide: A Christmas throwdown for the ages, the ultimate holiday standoff to end all holiday standoffs.

I'm talking, of course, about a potential duel between Richard Boone's mustache and Ed Binns' eyebrows.

Oh, sure, there are verbal jousts throughout this episode, but what I really want to see is the clash of the facial hair. From Fa La La La La to Follicle Fury, it would be a drag-out spectacle to rival anything in the history of TV Westerns.

I'm still making my way through my "HGWT" sets and am far from a knowledgable source of the series' history, but I'd wager Boone's kick-ass 'stache is rarely threatened in the 6-year run. It's authoritative yet alluring, simple yet stylish. Quick draw or not, many a battle was surely won before it started by the sheer intimidating power of this deceptively thin vittle duster.

Binns' set of eyebrows, in this episode put him on perhaps an equal footing. This bushy pair give his grumpy old rancher instant credibility as a Grinch figure. In fact, it's not hard to picture him sneaking down a chimney, grabbing all the presents, food, and decorations in sight, and stuffing them into those brows before slithering back up from whence he came.

"The Hanging Cross" is not only on the Season 1 DVD sets, it's available all over the place at legitimate Internet video sites like Fancast. See it for yourself and stage your own mental Hair vs. Hair grudge match.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cultureshark Holiday Gift Guide

Here are some last-last-minute suggestions I have for your gift-giving pleasure this year.

For a music lover: Gift card to a a local record shop, preferably one with a big Used selection (if such a thing exists in your area). -Let me tell you something I now realize about gift cards. When you give someone one of these, assuming it's something you're reasonably sure the recipient can use, it's not a cop out or a thoughtless gesture. Quite the contrary, it's almost a double gift. You're not just giving money, you're giving time. In other words, your gift card, especially if to a brick-and-mortar store of some kind, is an excuse for someone to take the time to get out of the house, put aside other worries, and spend time looking for cool stuff. To me, that's a very thoughtful present.

For movie lover: Gift card to local indie/arthouse theater (if one is nearby): This is another dual-purpose kind of gift for the film snob in your life. She gets to support the local establishment, plus right now is when the so-called prestige or smart pictures are allegedly arriving, so the holiday timing is perfect.

For classic movie lover: "Touch of Evil" Anniversary Edition DVD. I don't have this one yet, but judging by the reviews for the disc, as well as the movie itself, I'm confident in calling this a worthy package. You get a fascinating film along with a plethora of extras detailing its production, and the complex history of "Touch of Evil" makes its history particularly intriguing. I'd have to think a serious film fan could at least get something out of this set. One of the attractive things about it as a gift is the relatively low MSRP compared to, say, a Criterion DVD.

For a comic book lover: Subscription to "Comics Buyers Guide" or "Back Issue" magazines. The monthly "CBG" is geared towards older collectors, with extensive coverage of Silver Age and Golden Age material and a general focus on history more than trendy current books (though the front of the mag covers that sort of thing). There is a lot of fun in each issue, and seeing it in my mailbox gives me the thrill I used to get by picking up new comics s.

"Back Issue" is another fun magazine, and it's a must-read for anyone who grew up on comic books of the seventies and/or eighties. It comes every two months and is a bit pricey, but its combination of historical articles and varied illustrations (including rare original art to accompany the text) makes it worth it. It may be hard to find, though, especially if a comic store isn't nearby (and then maybe even if it is), making a sub a great convenience.

For a classic TV lover: Season 2 of "Mr. Peepers." I have an agenda in promoting this one because the studio releasing it, S'Mores, reportedly did poorly with its "Make Room for Daddy" set. I like what I've seen of their work and want them to continue in the classic TV on DVD game.

"Peepers" might not be for everyone's tastes; it's a gentle comedy with a sensibility you just don't see in sitcoms today. But that's part of what makes it so fascinating to watch today. I don't have season 2 yet, but I hear the technical quality, particularly the sound, is improved over season 1, so this looks like a great purchase--an opportunity to give an vintage TV fan something different and support a small label that looks to have its heart in the right place.

For a baseball nut: "The Baseball Project Volume 1" is a fine rock album that will delight the sport's fans. This CD, of course, has been discussed here before and also here.

For a book lover: The easy thing would be to recommend gift card again, and I know I love having some free money in my pocket when I walk into a bookstore (or shop online). I could also recommend one of the many cool books I enjoyed this year, some of which I still intend to cover on this blog. But at the risk of sounding corny, I'd just say if you have a chance to give a loved one/friend/person-you-tolerate something that facilitates some reading time, go for it. I'm kind of thinking along the lines of that "browsing" concept again. Time is a precious commodity, and I think reading is one of the first things to go. A comfy chair, a snazzy set of bookmarks, one of those mini-lamp thingies--anything that encourages and gives someone the impetus to say, "Hey, yeah, I deserve an hour or so with a good book," is a worthy gift. Not giving me flak when I take a book along to the mall is also appreciated, but I doubt my wife is reading this.

Is it Bait and Switch when it's free?

I say yes. Just got this email, one of the regular "Members Only Giveaway" drawing deals I get from Entertainment Weakly:

Introducing the world's first 3mm thin TV, the Sony® Organic LED television. With a screen that's as thin as three credit cards, Sony's XEL-1 changes television. It also breaks new ground with a 1 million to 1 contrast ratio, outstanding brightness, accurate color reproduction, and an exceptionally rapid response time.

WOW! That sounds cool. I mean, I won't BUY one, but I'd love to win a free one and try it out. Where do I click?

But here's the next paragraph:

Also from Sony, comes Hancock. And for a limited time you can receive a chance to win one of 20 copies of Hancock on Blu-ray! Simply CLICK HERE for your chance to win.

Uh, no thanks.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Classic TV Christmas Festival #3: The Bob Newhart Show

"The Bob Newhart Show" had several Christmas episodes, but the one I just saw is "His Busiest Season" from the first season DVD and available on Hulu. It's a funny show with some patented Bob reactions and that sort of thing. What strikes me about it, though, is its underlying melancholy, something you don't always get in this kind of sitcom holiday fare.

Of course, "Bob Newhart" was always a show with an adult sensibility, so it's not surprising that its take on the yuletide season would be a thoughtful one. But, while maybe I'm reaching here, I see a vague connection to a timeless special aimed at kids--"A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Both this episode and "Charlie" end on an upbeat note, but the happiness is preceded by a series of emotional ups and downs. You all know the story of the Peanuts gang, but Bob's Christmas experience begins (at least this half-hour does) with a group therapy session in which all his patients relate the bad memories and experiences they associate with the holiday. Later, the act of gift-giving causes anxiety as Bob must first find Emily a worthy gift, then go back out and get more after he sees the big stack of stuff she got him.

Then we see the happy couple relaxing in front of the TV on Christmas Eve. Howard* stops by, killing time before a flight to France, and all but invites himself in, clearly lonely and desperate for company. The 3 of them try to enjoy themselves but realize something is missing. Emily says it isn't Christmas without kids and a bunch of people, etc. So Bob throws a party at his house with all his patients.

Even though the place is bustling, there still is a pall in the air as the patients express some of their anxieties and fears. The ice finally thaws, if not breaks, when Bob admits it's a bad party and everyone, relieved it's not just them, joins in talking about what a bad party it is. So now they can all finally relax and have fun and sing carols, right?

Not quite. Jerry arrives, and while all the others are singing songs, he hesitates before entering the group, obviously troubled. When Bob asks him what's wrong, Jerry says he was late and everybody else is having a good time already, so he feels left out, which makes him sad. Note that this line isn't played for laughs at all. We only get a joke of sorts when Bob hastily assures the guests that Jerry didn't say he felt "sad," but that he felt "glad." As we head to the credits, the fragile, tentative Christmas cheer seems to be holding, but only after this final (we hope) reassurance from Dr. Bob Hartley.

At one point, Bob even gets up and says, almost sounding like a certain round-headed kid, "I'm not gonna let Christmas get me down," before organizing his impromptu party. The implication is that even surrounded by your wife, your best friend, and a beautiful tree surrounded by presents, you have to guard against the loneliness of the holiday.

Whew! There's a lot of angst in this episode, and not all of it is washed away with a joke or a funny take. It reminds me of the way "A Charlie Brown Christmas" captures some of the darkness that accompanies the "most wonderful time of the year." After all, if you don't feel happy, it can be difficult making it through the season with everyone telling you how happy they are--and how happy you should be.

*Thanks to Ivan for the save, as I originally mixed up my Bill Daily characters!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Brooks on Books: The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

OK, "The Man Who Invented Christmas" isn't exactly an appropriate title. Would you believe, "The Man Who Loved Christmas and, Through His Enduring Short Novel, Did Much to Assure the Continuing Growing Popularity of the Holiday"?

Not quite as catchy, eh? Well, Standiford writes a fun, short account of Charles Dickens' creation of "A Christmas Carol" nevertheless. As for that hyperbolic title, Standiford himself makes no such claim for Dickens. He points out the lasting influence "A Christmas Carol" has had in our culture, but I'm pretty sure he only says that many commentators have given the author such credit.

It doesn't matter, though. Instead of focusing on what Dickens isn't, focus on what this book IS: A concise biography of Dickens himself, an entertaining account of the writing of perhaps his most famous work, and a brief history of the Christmas holiday itself. Standiford himself is modest regarding his goals, but he's written a real winner here. It's not exactly small enough to be a stocking stuffer, but the compact volume should make a great gift this season.

At the time he conceived "A Christmas Carol," Dickens, though a prominent and highly successful author, was in the midst of a series of commercial and personal setbacks. So while this isn't exactly a case of a guy scraping himself off the bottom to achieve sudden fame, Standiford does a good job of establishing the stakes for the author and how significant this work was for him. He barely needs to convince us of the continuing modern impact of the story, but the book is effective here as well.

We've been saturated with Scrooge for so long in so many different variations that it's possible the core story has been diluted somewhat. That's as good a reason as any to go back and, if not read the actual book, read Standiford's engaging tale of its creation. It's a fast but worthy experience, one that'll fill you with "ho ho ho" and Christmas cheer.

Classic TV Christmas Festival Part 2: What's Happening

One of these things does NOT happen in "Christmas," a first-season episode of "What's Happening!!"::

*Several characters exclaim "What's Happening!!" in the course of the show.
*Rerun's weight is ridiculed.
*Dee makes a snide comment.
*Mabel "Mama" King sings a seductive "Santa Baby" to the camera clad only in a Santa cap and skimpy mistletoe-themed lingerie.

Care to guess which isn't true?

Perhaps the "classic" status of this particular series is debatable, but here is a heartwarming Christmas episode with a simple premise that is executed well enough. Raj and Dee plan to spend Christmas alone, as per usual. They explain to a stunned Rerun and Dwayne that their Mama, a maid, can make big bucks by working on the big party days of the 24th and the 25th, and this year is no different.

Raj and Dee insist they'll be fine on their own, but when their dad Bill stops by, he insists they join him and his girlfriend for Christmas dinner the next day. after some drama--Bill's a bit of a no-account sometimes, you see, and Dee is reluctant--Dad convinces them they're coming. After all, Mama's working, right?

Only Mama ain't working. She plans to surprise the kids by telling them she took the day off to be with them, but when she gets home Christmas Eve, of course Raj tells her how happy their father is about getting to spend the holiday with them for the first time in 10 years. Mama cagily inquires if Bill's girlfriend will be there, and when she finds out she's the cook, she ends her brief thoughts of inviting herself over and pretends to be working.

Let me just say this all ends happily. What I like about this episode is the little touches of humanity that add up to a good dose of Christmas cheer. Besides the central drama involving the family, there's the generosity of Rerun and Dwayne's parents, who send over dishes for Raj and Dee thinking they'll be alone on the 25th. Dee sort of acknowledges she loves her brother when he gets her the doll she wanted. And Shirley even stops by with a pie. She apparently is set to devour it herself within minutes of her arrival, but that's our lovable Shirley.

There's one odd thing about "Christmas." [SPOILER ALERT]
When Mama's sacrifice is revealed in a typically wacky fashion, we almost instantly go to the inevitable happy scene of the whole family, plus Bill's girlfriend, sitting around a dinner table in merry spirits. We don't see the Big Explanation scene, and maybe I shouldn't complain, but it's an abrupt transition.

But, hey, it's "What's Happening!!," it's a feel-good half-hour, and it's Christmas. I guess that's all you need to know. For some reason, Hulu apparently doesn't have this right now among its roster of full episodes, but it's on the season 1 DVD if you want to look for that "Santa Baby" scene.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Classic TV Christmas Festival Part 1: The Odd Couple

I'm gonna kick off the Fest with an underrated Christmas gem. I don't know why I don't hear more about "The Odd Couple" season 1 episode "Scrooge Gets an Oscar." Is the series off the collective radar? Are people sick of reworkings of "A Christmas Carol"? Well, this is a great reworking of that oft-oft-oft-told tale.

The thing that makes Dickens' story so desirable to adapt to other formats is...that it's in the public domain. But it's also a story that allows, say, a TV series to showcase its characters with a few minor changes here and there. In this case, it doesn't take a great leap of faith to picture Oscar Madison as a Scrooge character or Murray as a pitiable Tiny Tim. Too easy? Perhaps, but it's a funny installment of a classic show.

Oscar is grumpy because Christmastime reminds of him his ex-wife (he says they got married on December 25). Perhaps more aggravating, Blanche has just split with her beau, shattering Oscar's dreams of not having to pay any more alimony. So he takes it out on everybody else, wishing he had a giant candy cane so he could "beat the wings off a sugar plum fairy, " and he also refuses to play Scrooge in a version of "A Christmas Carol" Felix is directing. After rousing his ulcer with some spicy food, Scrooge Madison dozes off on the couch and is visited by 3 spirits, all of whom look an awful lot like Felix Unger...

I know for many fans, "The Odd Couple" really begins when they go to a studio audience in season 2, but "Scrooge Gets an Oscar," within the confines of a formulaic Christmas outing, offers many series elements I consider quintessential:

*The poker guys are all here, and in fact, they are playing poker at the beginning.
*Oscar throws Felix out of the apartment (and right before Christmas, too! What a Scrooge!).
*Felix is pompous.
*Oscar gripes about his ex-wife.
*Great takes from Tony Randall and Jack Klugman: See Felix's exasperated eye rolls when "Tiny Tim" Murray keeps repeating "God bless us all, everyone." And definitely see Oscar's double takes when a ghost surprises him.

On a DVD intro, executive producer Garry Marshall marvels that this is the only "Odd Couple" episode with special effects--like smoke! In addition to the mood-setting fake fog, there are Victorian costumes galore, making this an offbeat episode for such an urban 1970s TV series. Yet I should also mention another great touch: early on, there are a few great contemporary outdoor shots of a snowbound New York City.

The "Christmas Carol" takeoff plays just the way you'd expect to, with genuine good cheer and warmth at the end. But the writers don't have to strain to force the Christmas concept on us. In fact, in addition to those elements I mentioned above, there are all sorts of great character touches. The exchange of gifts between Felix and Oscar is touching, funny, and totally relevant. It's a kick to see Oscar, sitting in front of the tube, irritated because a TV broadcast of "A Christmas Carol" preempts roller derby. When the gang is rehearsing the play, Speed hides a cheap pulp novel inside his copy of the script.

"Scrooge Gets an Oscar" is a fine example in a seemingly limitless category of "Christmas Carol" knockoffs. It may have been an old gimmick even then, but it works for "The Odd Couple," giving this classic series an Xmas episode that holds up well alongside its regular ones. Those of you who get WPIX in New York can see it late late Christmas night (technically the 26th) at 2:0o A.M., but though I grew up watching "The OC" on that channel, I'm happy to have the show uncut on the season 1 DVD set.

This Week in DVD

There are some funky release dates this week and next due to the forthcoming holidays, so consider this a catch-all "Pre-Christmas" edition of This Week in DVD, with a few of the discs mentioned not technically out this week. But if you go to your local retailer today and find one, hey, there you go--Christmas miracle!

Mamma Mia: Now, ladies, this year you had this AND "Sex and the City." Next year, you only get to pick one movie, OK? Thanks.

The Women: I guess I needn't have worried, ladies, since none of you bothered to see this one. Maybe two chick flicks for the over-30 set was enough.

The House Bunny: Anna Faris: Brilliant comedienne or attractive woman fawned over for being hot, seemingly accessible, and funny?

Burn After Reading: The Coens are wacky--wacky, I tells ya.

Mr. Bean Ultimate Collection: Sorry, I don't even want to KNOW what it is about this collection that makes my Complete Bean set obsolete. I can't bear to find out.

Hamlet 2: I haven't seen this and I don't necessarily mean this as a knock, but how did what sounds like a "Ben Stiller Show" sketch become, like, a real movie?

Petticoat Junction: The Official First Season: Paramount's moving even slower than Uncle Joe when it comes to getting this show out.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Coming this weekend: Classic TV Christmas Festival

Beginning this weekend and extending all the way to the Big Day (and perhaps beyond), I'll be watching and discussing some Christmas TV episodes from the fabled Cultureshark Archives. I plan to include a variety of shows ranging from not that old to old to really old, mostly comedies--and, oh, yeah, hopefully no shows that suck. In the immortal words of Butt-head (or should that be the words of the immortal Butt-head?), I don't like stuff that sucks.

One thing I planned to talk about was the Xmas episode of "Amos and Andy." This was apparently a tradition on the radio show, but they only did it once on the rare short-lived TV program, and I saw it for the first time a few weeks back. I understand the "con" side of the Amos and Andy argument (if there still is one), but this episode is one of the most poignant and heartfelt sitcom episodes I've seen.

But why take my word for it? Billy Ingram has a great piece up on his TVParty website, an article detailing the history of this episode. It's thorough, enlightening, and a pleasant read.

Uh, just don't expect that kind of effort in the Cultureshark Classic TV Christmas Festival, OK?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Journey Into DVD: New Faces

I discovered Netflix carries Critics Choice's DVD release of "New Faces," a 1954 film of the 1952 edition of a long-running stage production. I've been curious to see this ever since I read a biography of Paul Lynde. See, Lynde made a name for himself in this revue, and he apparently got a lot of mileage out of a "Trip to Africa" monologue he performed which is recreated here.

After renting "New Faces," I can say my curiosity is satisfied, but that's about all. Unfortunately, this production is 100 minutes of mostly dull musical numbers and comedy bits with a perfunctory backstage romance storyline thrown in for the film. Lynde is barely here, and his big monologue is terrible. The apparent punchlines don't register, and it looks like Lynde is forcing his distinctive laugh in a desperate attempt to wring laughs from a weak routine. But then he did this many times on stage, so what do I know? Maybe something, or everything, is just lost in translation.

Mel Brooks is credited as a writer, but it's far from his finest moment. It's kind of fun seeing future sitcom notables like Alice Ghostley and Robert Clary, and Eartha Kitt provides some energy with her songs, but overall this is a dated production. Making viewing more difficult is the bad transfer, which looks like it came from a VHS dub (and for all I know, it did). The editing is awkward between segments, but I think that's part of the original presentation. Worst of all, this is shot in Cinemascope despite the "direction" which mostly makes us an audience in a theater watching a stage play.

The real treat of this DVD is an unexpected one: A complete episode of the Dorsey brothers' CBS program "Stage Show." This is another artifact I've long wanted to check out. The show is perhaps best known today for being the lead-in to the Classic 39 episodes of "The Honeymooners" the year that Jackie Gleason downsized his variety hour and paired half-hour versions of his most famous sketch with the Dorsey's musically-oriented show.

I guess this episode is a bonus feature, though it receives equal billing on the DVD menu. You get some big band music featuring the Dorseys, some action from Gleason's famed June Taylor Dancers, and Sarah Vaughn singing two numbers (including "Over the Rainbow).

And you also get Morey Amsterdam. He always makes me laugh, even when I'm not sure why. When he's introduced here, he turns around and asks, "Nice arrangement. Who made it, Marjorie Main?" His routine is old-timey, maybe even corny comedy, and I love it, especially compared to the unfunny comedy of "New Faces."

So there you have it: I didn't even know about the "Stage Show" episode, and it wound up making the DVD worthwhile for me.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Not exactly bowled over

The 2008-09 college football bowl schedule was announced last week, and, hey, for all I know, one is being played right now as I write this. I used to love the bowl season, and while I wish there were a playoff system in place, I still enjoy the idea of there being a ton of games spread out over the entire holiday season.

In fact, in days of yore, when I was a swinging bachelor, I'd often take time out from my ring-a-ding lifestyle and actually watch a lot of these games. Nowadays, with work and family, I just don't have as much time to watch 'em even if I wanted to...and I'm not so sure I want to.

I mean, can even the teams involved be excited about the Motor City Bowl this week, the Detroit instant classic pairing Central Michigan and Florida Atlantic? Hey, I shouldn't sell Florida Atlantic short, though. Some observers consider them the best 6-6 team in the country.

I could go on at some length ridiculing the corporate sponsorships and the weak match-ups involving teams with 5 and 6 losses, but anyone who has followed college football for some time knows the drill by now. I know I do, but for some reason, my enthusiasm wanes more and more each year. I mean, it's nice to have football on just about every day over the holidays, just in case I need it, but I rarely need it.

I will say that I AM happy Penn State is playing in the Rose Bowl. I've long hated the so-called Grandaddy of Them All, a boring game coasting on tradition and the inexplicable love its adherents have for the Big Ten-Pac-10 combination it so cherishes. Ever since PSU was forced to play a weak Oregon team--and got penalized for it by voters--after the 1994 season, I resented this game.

This year, though, I'm thankful the Nittany Lions are in a prestigious bowl against a marquee opponent, USC. Plus the New Year's Day date stands out now that so many of the bigger bowls play in the anti-climactic time between Jan. 1 and the BCS title game. So this year, tradition is a good thing, and I'll be with my family as we plan our holiday around the Rose Bowl.

But I won't be rearranging my plans to catch the Motor City Bowl, even if those plans involve a nap, some leftovers, and the newspaper.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Brooks on Books: So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star by Jacob Slichter

This is one of the best books about the music industry I've read, a fascinating and addictive insider's look at what happens when you become a "rock star." If you don't recognize the name "Jacob Slichter," well, that's kind of the point. He's the drummer for Semisonic, which is apparently more than semi-retired after achieving some fame in the nineties. He's not famous, but he's a hell of a writer, and perhaps his status gives him the courage to be so honest in his book.

Slichter guides you through the entire journey of a prominent rock band, from the early gigs to the eventual boot from the record label. Along the way, he includes all sorts of telling details and anecdotes.

The book is fascinating because on one hand, Slichter's self-effacing style and the quality of his memoirs deglamorize the whole lifestyle. His humility and perspective make him a likable storyteller and a perfect guide through a complicated world which most of us will never know. Yet Slichter also details how he goes from an inexperienced stage performer worrying about anxiety attacks to a jaded veteran of the road who obsesses over sales and airplay numbers, then gets to a point where commercial troubles affect his enjoyment of the overall musical process. He never seems like a jerk, especially since we're reading his own self-aware take on it, but clearly something happens to him.

Don't get me wrong, though, because this is not a sordid saga of a nice guy getting chewed up by the music biz and becoming a complete a-hole on his way to a hard fall. No, Slichter clearly retains some perspective not just when he writes the book, but during Semisonic's peak. At the conclusion of a book that frustrates you by exposing how inane the industry is, he reminds you what it's all about for him: the joy of connecting with an audience through performance. The fact that he makes that connection and what it means to him so palpable while also clarifying the ridiculousness of the business end is what makes the book such a winner.

Well, that and the humor and the great stories about topics like playing on late night TV, killing time on the tour bus before a festival performance, slanting answers in interviews to bolster the band's image/cred, slyly interjecting comments in the mixing stage to increase your instrument's presence without appearing to...I could go on and on. It's hard to imagine many aspects of the "rock star" life that Slichter leaves out, though he is notably reserved about his personal life.

I say this autobiography is frustrating because so much of it points out how tough it is for Semisonic to thrive and how so many factors out of a band's control can cut it off at the knees. There's the sheer amount of money a record label shells out to promote a group (The running account of Semisonic's "recoupable debt" it would owe MCA is hilarious and telling). There is the office politics and industry politics that cripple a company or alter the perception of the company to the point where other people in the biz use it to frame all their dealings with the band. There is the dilemma of modern radio, where an act that doesn't fit neatly into one narrow format (or is pereceived not to) can't get vital airplay.

The record industry is in big trouble, as is radio, even more so now than when "So You Wanna Be" was published in 2004. I don't wish job losses on anybody. But it's impossible to read this and not think about how screwed up the music business is and how difficult it is to want to support such a an inefficient, unjust system.

So, yes, Jacob Slichter's memoir is a frustrating book in that regard, but it's ultimately a positive one due to his writing and his retention of his passion for music. More importantly, it's entertaining, revealing, and funny, and I recommend it whether you remember Semisonic, you only remember their big hit "Closing Time," or you have no idea who these guys are. You just have to like music.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The day I lost my WWF innocence

This month, WWE 24/7 is bringing back some memories by running two of its pay-per-view events from 1991: Survivor Series and This Tuesday in Texas (yes, they really called it that). I saw the former live, but not the latter, and whole scenario is what convinced me that professional wrestling hated me and always would.

Picture it: State College, Pennsylvania, 1991. I was in high school, and my wresting fanatic friends and I were thrilled that a local sports bar showed WWF PPVs for a cover charge (and probably some kind of minimum, too). What better time could be had than watching the WWF on a big screen, eating some pub food, and irritating the wait stuff by constantly getting free refills on our we're-underage-and-can't-make-you-real-money sodas?

We gathered on a Sunday for the Survivor Series, and, yes, we were all marks because we were paying for the product. And of course we knew it was all a big show. But we didn't quite expect to get ripped off the way we did. You see, the Survivor Series was mainly a showcase for a series of crowded elimination tag team matches. Ultimately, though, the night was dominated by the most prolific tag team in the history of pro wrestling: Bait and Switch.

The show got off to a bad start when figurehead "WWF President" announced some BS reason why Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Randy "Macho Man" Savage, who were bitterly feuding at the time, wouldn't be on the show. Something like it was too dangerous for them to wrestle on the Survivor Series. So they would meet at the next possible day..."This Tuesday in Texas." And wouldn't you know that the WWF just happened to have satellite time reserved for a pay per view special?

Survivor Series 1991 continued, and what was the happiest moment of our night unfolded when Hulk Hogan lost his title to the Undertaker. We were all confirmed Hogan haters, and seeing a rare pinfall loss by "The Chumpster" should have made the evening, esepcially considering the involvement of our beloved Ric Flair. But I think even right after it happened, we knew it was short-lived, that Hogan would get the title back right away. After all, the finish was controversial, and there was gonna be a rematch, and when do you think they could arrange to stage one? You guessed it...This Tuesday in Texas.

Throughout the evening, the announcers kept yammering about what was going to happen on Tuesday instead of focusing on what we were paying to see now. This kind of constant shill is commonplace nowadays in professional wrestling, with TV serving as a long blast of hype for the next PPV...and even during the 90s, PPVs seemed like vehicles to promote the next night's TV show. At the time, though, this wasn't done so much.

Sure, we enjoyed our sodas and wings and burgers, but we were paying money to see a TV show. But instead of putting on the best TV show it could, the WWF turned one of its showcase events into a long commercial for another expensive program a mere two days later, one that the bar, as far as we knew, wouldn't even be showing. Besides, it was on a school night.

Not that we would have rushed back two nights later to shell out for that. Yes, we knew wrestling was a con before that Sunday night, but witnessing the big sell for That Tuesday in Texas was the first experience we had paying for the product and getting screwed. From that point on, we knew all too well the nature of the relationship between the industry and its consumers.

So I get a real kick out of watching Survivor Series again after all this years and, more importantly, finally seeing This Tuesday in Texas. I can appreciate the ridiculous bait and switch of the former now that I'm older and wiser and not as invested in it. As for the latter, it's fairly weak except for that Savage-Roberts match (which didn't even end their feud, meaning that it would drag on to yet another big event), and I'm glad I didn't fall for their scheme and pay for it back then.

Of course, now that I think about it, I watched This Tuesday in Texas on WWE 24/7...which is...wait a minute...a pay service. I pay every month to see this stuff.

D'oh! They're STILL getting me!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Most Inspirational TV Moment of 2008?

Had you asked me just a week or so ago what the most inspirational televised moment of the year was, I would have to say maybe President-elect Obama's emotional speech in the late hours of Election Night.

But now, after this week's episode of "The Sarah Silverman Program," in which Brian Posehn's character opens a jar into which his boyfriend had farted 10 years ago, takes a whiff, and kind of likes it...well, I gotta say it's probably a tossup.

Friday, December 12, 2008

5Q Movie Review: The Love Guru

Q: Is Mike Myers' latest creation, Guru Pitka, as funny as Austin Powers?

A: No, not at all. In fact, after renting this movie last week, I think back to reading about what a perfectionist Myers is and how he worked so hard to craft this character, and I go, huh? There's not much to the guy except a nasally voice and a tendency to use a lot of "comical" acronyms.

Q: Well, is the movie stronger than the character? Could it be the equivalent of "Austin Powers 4"?

A: Hmm, possibly, but maybe not in the way you mean it, but in the sense that since Austin Powers 3 was such a dropoff, you'd expect the fourth to be even worse. There are some funny ideas and gags in "The Love Guru," but they don't amount to much. In the end, what you take away are the juvenile puns and potty humor. That stuff was a lot funnier coming from Austin Powers in the context of spy/sixties spoofs. Here, it often seems desperate. Also, some of the gags are recycled at least in spirit from the Austin flicks. Take Ben Kingsley's cross-eyed guru, another instance of Myers asking us to laugh at both the physical oddity and his own character's reactions to that oddity. It's kind of old now.
Oh, and Verne Troyer is back, this time exploring an entirely new kind of character as he does a subtle homage to Woody Allen's character in--ah, who am I kidding? He's back so Myers can make some size jokes.

Q: Sorry, but I have to ask: Does Jessica Alba look hot?

A: She's a beautiful young woman, but her casting as owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a little ridiculous. Actually, her whole character and storyline is ridiculous, but at least we don't have to see a full-on sex scene between her and Myers. And, oh, if you're wondering, there are two brief scenes in which she wears fetching Bollywood-style costumes and dances, but they don't make the movie much better.

Q: Hockey? Did this really have to be about hockey?

A: Yeah, really. At times, you get the feeling Myers just used this project as a vehicle for his obsessions. Hockey is one of them, of course. But also, the film's meager running time is padded by two full songs Myers sings in character. The closing number feels like a cheat to add something before the credits, and while the performance of Extreme's "More Than Words" is apparently meant as comedy, it's a waste of time.

Q: So is Mike Myers' live-action career over?

A: Whoa, I don't know about that. There's always the real "Austin 4." I think "The Love Guru" has enough funny spots to be worth seeing on pay cable, say, and I don't know why it tanked like it did in theaters. I mean, I'm glad I didn't buy a ticket, but it's not horrible or anything. Seeing it does give me the impression that Myers could use some collaboration with a strong comic voice to freshen up his own ideas. This time out, he recycles a lot of the same ideas and trots out another accent, but the execution is not fresh enough to make the repetition worthwhile.

As one more example, take Guru Pitka's mantra, "Mariska Hargitay." The average filmgoer may or may not find that inherently funny, but I would argue that the constant repetition of it early on dulls any comic value it has. Then Myers kills the joke by having the character actually meet Hargitay the person, and then he continues using the phrase as a punchline throughout.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Wonderful World of TCM: Holiday Affair

This old RKO joint with Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh has become a holiday tradition for me, and I just screened it again the other day. It's not the most dynamic Christmas movie around, but I have a soft spot for it dating back to the old pre-awful AMC days when the network ran it often. Now Turner Classic does its part by playing it every year.

There's lots to enjoy here, like the sheer novelty of seeing Mitch wooing a widow and her young son by being so damned decent (and all-knowing). My favorite scene, though, is when the leads are dragged in front of policeman Harry Morgan to explain how Mitchum's Steve Mason winds up in the vicinity of a mugging with some of the victim's effects on his person. Morgan gives a great running wise-ass commentary as he learns about the love triangle unfolding. And watch the faces when Mason explains he wasn't hiding behind a rock when the police came, but he was feeding a squirrel.

And there's always the fun of watching Leigh's Connie Ennis choose between Robert Mitchum and Wendell Corey. Hmm, big suspense there, eh? Let's break this one down a bit and lay out the facts as we ponder who a better husband would be (and of course, it's "husband," as things were decent back then, you know), Steve Mason or Corey's Carl Davis.

MASON: Looks like Bob Mitchum
DAVIS: Looks like Wendell Corey

MASON: Killed a man or 3 back in the day, and not just in the military (Oh, he doesn't say this, but his character is vague about his past, and COME ON)
DAVIS: Kills Connie every day...with kindness!

MASON: Wins over Connie's young boy in about 30 seconds without resorting to bribery
DAVIS: Has trouble getting the boy excited about inviting him to dinner

MASON: Goes ahead and bribes the kid anyway with an $80 train on Christmas.
DAVIS: Gets the kid a camera, then whines bitterly about being upstaged by the Mason Express.

MASON: Has the romantic aura of unemployment but plans to head West and get into boating...where he will roam the high seas capturing pirates (OK, I might be projecting a bit once again).
DAVIS: Calls himself an attorney, but doesn't do a very good job defending Mason before Harry Morgan.

MASON: Goes ahead and kisses Connie just because he feels like it.
DAVIS: Woos Connie with lines like, "You look like a tired, beautiful girl instead of just a beautiful girl."

I won't tell you who Connie chooses, but it's clear to me who she SHOULD choose. Why, it's Carl Davis, of course. Oh, Steve Mason may seem like a great guy, and maybe he is, but Janet Leigh's not a big enough star yet at this point. She should settle for the comfortable blandness of life with Carl Davis, a life marked by stability, order, and sex once a year after a few attempts at conceiving a child of their own. Then, of course, she can expect the inevitable drinking problem, a real "Holiday Affair" or two when Carl takes over his law firm and has his mid-life crisis, and a messy divorce in the mid 1960s.
Besides, Steve Mason will be too busy killing buccaneers to play Ward Cleaver.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

This Week in DVD

The Dark Knight: I haven't seen this yet, but I sure want to. I'm hoping that my folks buy this one so that we can all watch it on their big TV over the holidays.

HA! I'll bet you never read that kind of incisive DVD commentary from Ken Tucker.

Fox's Murnau and Borzage Box Set: It's amazing that this kind of hardcore cinephile set is coming out under the Fox banner. Too bad Fox lumped all the movies together in one expensive package, with the big link being that they're all old. Would Warners release am Eastwood and Scorcese Collection? Hey, that might be kind of cool, but never mind. I don't know much about these directors or these movies, but I note that it includes a Will Rogers picture, and I never met a Will Rogers DVD I didn't like.

Happy Days Season 4: Paramount is apparently still cutting music, but at least it's not splitting the seasons in half. I used to love, love, love "Happy Days" reruns in my misspent youth, and nowadays I'm amazed I used to watch and enjoy some of these episodes so many times--or even once, in many cases. But season 4 includes the introduction of the great Al Molinaro as restaurant impresario Big Al and the not-so-great Officer Kirk as Fonz's nemesis. Also look for undeniable cheese classics when Fonz and Pinky Tuscadero battle the Malachi brothers (my friends and I used to reference "The Malachi Crunch" in every neighborhood football game we played for about 3 years) and Arthur Fonzarelli makes a memorable appearance in a dance marathon with "Shortcake."

As I look over the episode list, two great sitcom cliches jump out as well, as the gang gets trapped in a time capsule and Fonzie becomes indebted to Potsie after Mr. Weber saves him from a fire. Yep, I used to watch this stuff every day after school, folks.

Man on Wire: This is ze movie about ze man who walked on ze wire--OK, that's already way too annoying. Sorry. This is a cool-sounding documentary of Phillippe Petit, who walked along a high wire connecting the Twin Towers in 1974. My official "I Want to See It" disc of the week, or at least the "I want to see it, and I'll probably have to get it myself because I can't rely on my parents to get it" disc of the week.

Philadelphia Phillies 2008 World Series DVD: What? How did this make it into this post? I still refuse to acknowledge this. Buy another copy of the 2007 Red Sox World Series DVD instead. Or buy a cheesesteak. Anything but this.

Talk about your "No Fun League"

Yesterday, the National Football League announced it was laying off about 150 employees, allegedly in response to the recession.

(For my ranting pleasure, the remainder of this post is largely encumbered by facts)

My first reaction to this news is, "Whoa, if the NFL is feeling it, we must really be in some tough economic times.

But my second reaction, close on the heels of the first, is, "Uh, wait a minute. Isn't this a multi-billion-dollar entity?" We're told all the time that the game is more popular than ever before. Tickets sell out at stadiums everywhere, at least at those in which the occupants win every now and then. TV ratings are strong, and the league gets tons of guaranteed money for the next several years from its network partners. NFL Properties is strong, with merchandise sales raking in more cash.

Hey, do you know how many millions and millions of dollars the NFL will make this year?


(Hey, I said this would be unencumbered by facts.)

The NFL is doing fine. It may eventually be caught up in the spiral that threatens to overtake this economy, but right now it appears to be part of the problem, presumptively slashing jobs simply because its pile of billions of bucks might be short a few mil next year. No wonder people get panicky at economic news. Long-term planning is essential for any business, but this looks like a short-term reactionary excuse.

If you read the stories of this news closely, you'll see even the league is framing this as positioning itself for the future. Yet everyone reporting this is saying the NFL is cutting jobs because of the recession, implying that the organization is hurting. Not at all true. No, it's just a classless, nonessential move by a big corporation, axing a good chunk of its workforce not just during the football season, but during the holiday season.

I know everybody loves football and we're all waiting for Sunday night and ready for some football, etc., but I hope this isn't yet another case of the NFL getting a pass because the public (and much of the media) is willing to swallow whatever it puts out there. This weekend, as you sit in front of the tube and watch a pro football game, think of those 150 or so people that got canned because the NFL thinks things might get dicey next year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"Leverage" on TNT

If you're hoping to read a take on the new drama "Leverage" appearing weekly on TNT, well, sorry. I haven't seen it yet. What I want to write about is what keeps coming to my mind when I see or hear anything about this show.

First of all, I think any of us who saw "Battlefield Earth," if we admit to it, will share horrible flashbacks each time we hear the word "leverage." I'm still a little hazy on the details, but I think the Klingon-wannabe aliens in the movie believe achieving leverage is the ultimate goal of all reality. I don't recall exactly how they went about getting it--perhaps some kind of giant laser?

All I know is that John Travolta and other less Scientological actors in that film used the word so many times that to this day, I still think the movie's title is "Leverage," and it takes a good 30 seconds of staring at the IMDB page to convince me otherwise.

So when I hear a radio ad for TNT's "Leverage," I picture Timothy Hutton in bizarre alien makeup, grinning with a devilish twinkle and asking, "They think they have leverage? Those fools! I'll show them leverage!" As bad as "Battlefield Earth" is, if the TNT series offered anything like that, I would have seen it by now and might well be discussing it. Instead, I think Timothy Hutton is just plain Timothy Hutton, and good for him,, I can wait a while.

The other thing that comes to mind is a scenario that played out on numerous WWF telecasts in the 1980s. Brit color announcer Lord Alfred Hayes would remark on a wrestler utilizing an excellent "leeverage" move, and a wise-ass partner in the booth--either Bobby Heenan or even Gorilla Monsoon--would ask if that is anything like a "leverage" move.

But then, I'm sure we all think of that when we hear the word, right?

Monday, December 8, 2008

My final pull list

A few days ago, I explained why I am basically giving up buying new comics regularly. Well, to make this blog even more self-indulgent--and isn't that the perpetual goal of bloggers everywhere?--I present my final pull list, the titles I was buying each month. I like these books, just not enough to change my decision. Note that I'm a DC guy, and I gave up what was my only Marvel, "She-Hulk," months ago, but I have read many Marvels through the courtesy of my friend Mike.

*Batman: Grant Morrison's take on the Caped Crusader has provided a lot of cool moments. I can't imagine buying comics on a regular basis and not getting a Batman title.
*Detective Comics: Or two Batman titles. I wasn't always crazy about the art on Paul Dini's run, and I got kind of tired of seeing Scarface, and it got away from its promise of offering Done-In-One tales each month, but still.
*Justice League of America: This book lost a lot of its luster for me when Brad Meltzer left--actually, it lost some during the disappointing "Lightning Saga"--but I loved the JLA ever since I was a wee lad. I'm sick of Vixen, who has dominated "Justice League" this past year, but as long as I'm buying comics, I'm buying a JLA title if I can.
*Justice Society of America: Though the current storyline has gone on and on and on, I love the characters and the whole legacy of the Earth-2 thing. This relaunch hasn't yet matched Johns' first run (Gee, reading me complain about all these comics, is it any wonder I'm getting out?), but it's still rich in DC history and character interaction.
*Green Lantern: Johns did wonders in resurrecting Hal Jordan and slowly filling in gaps in his history. I just wish Ethan Van Sciver could have drawn this every month.
*Birds of Prey: I told Mike a while back that I hoped I wasn't buying this one just because I like seeing hot superhero chicks like Huntress in costumes.
*Will Eisner's The Spirit: The current run of Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones, with various artists, focuses on lighter aspects, and it's usually a delight. Unique in today's DC Comics landscape for delivering complete stories each month that don't require dozens of visits to Wikipedia for orientation.
*Booster Gold: When Johns and Jeff Katz were writing this, it was one of the most fun titles around. I don't know if it can keep up the momentum, but "Booster" was really one of my biggest surprises of the last few years.
*Final Crisis: The latest mega blockbuster from DC. I have finally reached "event fatigue" after all these hyped-up miniseries with their endless crossovers. As for "Final Crisis" itself, I'm still not sure how much I like it, but I know this: I just stopped buying it in the middle of its run, and I feel no urgency to pick up the remaining issues.
*Final Crisis Legion of 3 Worlds: Johns' take on the Legion of Superheroes is a bit confusing, featuring several different incarnations of the group, but I'm confident it'll all come together. Besides, you get George Perez drawing the Legion. 'Nuff said.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Thinking of Linking: Move over...uh, me!

I would like to extend a hearty welcome to Ivan, writer extraordinaire and Friend of Cultureshark, as he joins the ranks of pop culture food bloggers with his Half-Assed Gourmand series.

Truth be told, though I appreciate his gracious shout-out (even as I wonder how he got the scoop on my upcoming Food Network throwdown), Ivan's first post puts my own recent food writing to shame. In short, this Gourmand is way more Half-Assed than I can ever hope to be.

Er, that didn't quite come out how I meant it, but I hope you understand the sentiment.

Brooks on Books: The Distance by Eddie Muller

Some of you may know Eddie Muller as "the czar of noir," a man who tirelessly promotes noir cinema and fiction through his own writing, organizing film festivals, spearheading film restoration efforts, recording entertaining DVD commentaries, and all sorts of other stuff. It's no surprise to anyone who is familiar with his work that he's capable of great fiction of his own. As proof, look no further than "The Distance," billed as "a crime novel featuring Billy Nichols."

Notice Muller doesn't describe it as a noir novel, but there are several elements of this addictive novel that should please any lover of films noir: The San Francisco locale, a potentially dangerous woman, and some seedy characters with underworld ties.

And, oh, yeah, the crime aspect. Like, for example, the murder which drives the story. Muller gets the novel off to a great start by presenting a dead body in the opening chapter. He immediately establishes a tense situation for his lead character and narrator, newspaper boxing columnist Billy Nichols. After finding fighter Hack Escalante and his dead manager in an apartment room, Nichols makes a choice...and things escalate from there.

There are great characters, believable ones, like Escalante and his wife Claire, wily police detective Francis O'Connor, and Nichols himself. Known as "Mr. Boxing," his narration is clever and self-aware, but in a way that's appropriate for a character who is a writer, not in some kind of overall self-conscious level for the novel. He thinks, says, and does some questionable and downright objectionable things, but he remains a compelling person and a distinctive voice. There's real emotion here as Nichols becomes increasingly desperate to get himself out of his entanglements.

I love that Muller combines the worlds of postwar America ("The Distance" is set in 1948), boxing, and newspapers; and he includes colorful details of each. Personally, any one of those settings would make this a book of interest, but Muller seamlessly blends all of them into an exciting narrative. If any of these aspects interest you, or if you just want a gripping crime yarn, I highly recommend "The Distance."

One question I have: Why the heck is this not a movie? Someone with the guts and skill to do a period piece has a great piece of material waiting.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Everyody knows you're lame

A few weeks ago, Hallmark Channel dumped "Cheers" reruns after grabbing the rights and showing them for, well, a few weeks. Hallmark got the rights from TV Land, and so right now, as far as I know, there is no national outlet for this classic sitcom. How can this be?

Time for a caveat or two:

*I know Hallmark Channel stinks and butchers all its programs, anyway, and true fans of the show are better off not seeing it there.
*I know that all 11 seasons of "Cheers" will be available on DVD when the final set comes out in January, thus making its on-air presence less vital.
*I know that the show is, at first glance, not at all compatible with the usual Hallmark fare and is actually a bizarre program acquisition to begin with.
*I know that the network's quick trigger doesn't give us enough info to make accurate assessments about who was or wasn't watching and why.
*Similarly, there's a pretty good shot nobody even knew the show was ON Hallmark.

But STILL...

Fact is, Hallmark dumped this great show after giving it the slimmest of trials. Buying this sitcom was an odd choice to begin with. This lame entity, known for murder mysteries and family-oriented TV movies, also purchased rights to "The Golden Girls" and "I Love Lucy." I don't see how the somewhat raunchy "Golden Girls" fits with the wholesome agenda of Hallmark (though it certainly fits the age demo). Maybe Lucy will fare well. But "Cheers"? What was Hallmark thinking in the first place?

I want to lay all on the blame on the Hallmark Channel and give credit to fans of the show for not bothering to watch 20-minute-long versions on this inferior network. But I also have to recognize this: "Cheers" apparently didn't set the world on fire on Nick at Nite or TV Land, or presumably it would still be on one of those outlets. I don't see "Cheers" much in local syndication anymore.

Is it possible most TV viewers just don't care about "Cheers" anymore? It was a big hit in its prime, and it holds up fine today. I just don't get a media landscape in which "3rd Rock from the Sun" and "Home Improvement" are on all the time, yet "Cheers" is exiled to DVDland.

If this is the state of America in 2008, I may have to move to Canada until the citizenry comes to its collective senses.

Friday, December 5, 2008

On the Radio: Season's Repeatings

I was in a conditional mood for some Christmas music on my way home from work the other night--that is, if something cool was on the radio, something I hadn't heard for a while, I'd listen to it. Hey, I understand that repetition and tradition are part of the whole holiday routine. I have about 4 albums in my December rotation every year: The "Charlie Brown Christmas" soundtrack, the Xmas albums from Phil Spector and the Chipmunks (separate ones; I don't think they've worked together yet), and in recent years the Los Straitjackets disc onto which my friend Dann turned me.

That last sentence was awkward. Sometimes you really should just end with a preposition.

Anyway, I like hearing the same songs, but since so many places play the same songs, I don't need to listen to them on the local Christmas station when I have the ability to hear something else. So I don't often listen to 97.1 FM. My wife puts it on all the time this season, and I get my fill there of the same few dozen tunes they deliver.

But the other night, I turned it there on a whim and heard Nat King Cole singing the "Christmas Song," an undeniable classic. Classic, yes, but not exactly a rarity. I hadn't loaded my Xmas CDs yet, so I decided to check out the Baltimore-area soft rocker, 101.9. This LITE-FM station doesn't come in as clearly, but it has a reputation for offering a larger playlist. Maybe I'd get lucky and find something a little more adventurous, I figured.

So I pushed a button or two, tuned in the more adventurous station, and heard...yep, you guessed it, Nat King Cole. And he wasn't singing "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," either.

I love that song, but come on!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

This Week in DVD

Casablanca Ultimate Collector's Edition: This is the Greatest Movie of All Time and my Favorite Movie of All Time, and so I'm kind of releived Warner Brothers added no significant extras other than spiffy packaging and ephemera. Otherwise, as expensive as this is, I think I might have had to buy it. That said, those replica Letters of Transit make a pretty cool extra.

Wanted: Is it significant that this high-profile title is only the third-most-prominent one in Redbox's New Releases e-mail this week? Probably not. I can't remember now if this is based on a comic book, a video game, or a hallucinogenic reaction to one of Angelina Jolie's malaria shots; but I do remember the Tomb Raider-era Angelina Jolie, and I have to say that one > this one.

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian: I'm sure this is filled with wonder and derring-do and all. The first movie was in that "Enjoyed it, wouldn't need to see it again" category.

Step Brothers: OK, maybe we're all a little tired of Will Ferrell by now, but doesn't the poster look funny, if unoriginal? Worth a rental, at least?

Best of Password: Not the episodes that are on GSN all the time, but installments from the sixties and seventies. This set should be a lot of fun.

The Man Called Flintstone: A former boss of mine called this "the greatest spy movie ever made." He was a great boss and a great guy. This one's for you, John!

The Longshots: "Directed by Fred Durst." 'Nuff said.

Cannon Season 1 Volume 2: Warm up the tuba! Frank Cannon is back! It may have taken him a while to get here, but the man's no Usain Bolt, you know.

White Dog: Sam Fuller's flick about a dog who's been trained to attack black people. Criterion gives us this heartwarming opus just in time for the holidays!

Cinematic Titanic: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: Two interesting things about this latest effort from the group of former MST3K-ites: 1) It's a title that Mystery Science Theater already lampooned 2) It, like other Cinematic Titanic efforts, ain't carried by Netflix. Wazzupwidat?

Saturday Night Live Season 4: Notable sketches in this season include the party with all the superheroes, a longtime Brooks Family Favorite, with Belushi as the Hulk leaving a memorable surprise for the Invisible Girl. This set also includes the notoriously bad Milton Berle episode, which was supposedly not syndicated for years because host Uncle Miltie was such a butthead.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I'm paying HOW much for TV, again?

Sitcoms Online reports that TV Land is about to include that good, old staple known as "Paid Programming" to its schedule. It'll start as a 5:00 to 7:00 AM thing and then expand to the 6:00 to 9:00 block at the end of December. No one should register surprise at this development. Maybe it's not all bad, though. After all, I hate infomercials, but I can think of about a dozen I'd rather watch than some of the "real" program acquisitions and originals TV Land added in recent years.

Of course, one thing that bites for the die-hards still sticking around to watch this declining channel is that this early-morning slot was where TV Land had been sticking many of its "real" (as opposed to reality) shows lately. This is just one more reason to give up on what used to be a great source of classic television.

In other cable network news, Verizon FIOS irritated me a week or two ago by adding Chiller, a horror channel from the NBC Universal company, but putting it on a new subscription package I don't get while placing it on the "dial" between channels I DO get.

I was quite bummed...until I looked at the Chiller schedule, which is loaded with--well, I'm sure the shows have their adherents, so I'll just describe the offerings as "uninspired." There are a few goodies, like "Kolchak" and "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour," and I'm impressed that the network is not yet afraid to show movies from the 1930s and 1940s. But there are too many repeats of too many shows that weren't all that interesting when they aired in the last decade or so, let alone now.

Still, Chiller's willingness to explore the pre-1980 shelves of the Universal library distinguishes it in today's cable landscape, especially compared to sister network Sleuth. Now, here is a waste of FIOS bandwidth. Each month or so, I'll open up my onscreen program guide, go to Sleuth, and see if they added anything worthwhile. I'm no longer disappointed, but each month I find the same handful of shows and an increasing number of (mostly) uninteresting edited movies filling the schedule.

Yet this is the one I get. I never want to see FIOS strip me of channels, but sometimes I almost wish they'd put Sleuth on some obscure programming package so I wouldn't bother with the charade of checking to see if it stopped sucking. Hey, swap me Chiller for Sleuth, and I won't complain, even if I know Chiller will be unwatchable in a year or two as well.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Brooks on Books: When Television Was Young by Ed McMahon with David Fisher

Given that this 2007 book features the following notice above its title on the front page:

"Includes Memories of Legends of the Small Screen"

...I expected a kind of oral history of early television. In fact, it's more of a narrative approach to TV history, with an emphasis on the various programming genres of the Golden Age of the boob tube. Those "memories" are rather scarce, sprinkled throughout the book and integrated into the text. Don't buy the book for that sort of thing unless the prospect of a few quotes from Penny Marshall thrills you.

This is by no means a comprehensive or groundbreaking history, but what is here is quite entertaining. Serious scholars of the medium's beginnings may not find a lot of new anecdotes here, but the stories and info are presented in a light, fun manner. I'm no TV scholar, but I have read a few books here and there, and I found enough amusing new-to-me tidbits to make this a worthwhile read.

I don't know how much Ed McMahon actually wrote. His "collaborator" David Fisher co-wrote several books with Ed already, and he also co-authored bios like "The Umpire Strikes Back," a very funny, anecdote-based memoir from major league ump Ron Luciano. He's clearly an experienced guy and an old hand at putting over funny stories on the page. Whoever is responsible in this effort deserves credit for crafting a book that flows nicely and combines information and entertainment in an effective manner.

The odd thing about "When Television Was Young" is that sometimes it is blatantly written from McMahon's point of view, as when he interjects his own experiences hosting local TV in Philly or, of course, teaming with Johnny Carson, but often it just reads like a casual, joke-filled story of TV. I find it hard to imagine McMahon hunched over his laptop, scanning his notes on "The Ed Wynn Show" and thinking of a clever way to connect it with other comedy-variety programs. But though Big Ed's career isn't the focus of the book, there are enough specific references throughout to remind you who the credited author is and to give you the feel that he really is chatting with you and filling you in on those early days.

The important thing is, the guys have fun with this project, and though they maintain a healthy respect for the medium and its pioneers, they never take this too seriously. Some readers may be irritated by the jokey style, which sometimes borders on corny, but I enjoyed it. There are a few gimmicks that somehow work. For example, there is a running bit in which Milton Berle supposedly interjects some of his own groaners to comment on the proceedings, then the author gets exasperated and tells him to buzz off. It sounds awful, but it works.

"When Television Was Young" is a fun read and a fine starter book for anyone interested in the Golden Age of TV. Even those who know a lot of the history can get something out of the entertaining presentation of the material. I cheaped out and borrowed it from the library, but I'd recommend you leaf through it and make sure you can handle the style before buying the hardback.