Saturday, May 30, 2009

Brooks on Books: Fred MacMurray by Charles Tranberg

Fred MacMurray doesn't get a lot of pub these days, and I'd wager that when he does, it's a gentle mocking of his family-friendly affable-yet-detached persona from "My Three Sons" and the Flubber movies and such. But Freddie Mac is about so much more than that. The guy was a big movie star for years and years before he became a sitcom/Disney flick dad. After establishing himself in many romantic comedies, he took some chances and turned in some stellar heel performances in "Double Indemnity," "The Caine Mutiny," and "The Apartment."

Just consider it: Fred MacMurray, the jovial, golf-playing Steve Douglas, played jerks in 3 certified classics. I think Freddie Mac is underappreciated today, possibly because his Dad image is so strong, possibly because many of his early hits are out of circulation, and probably because many people just fail to connect the dots and realize how good he was as a cad...and in more than one outing.

At any rate, the man deserves at least a solid biography, and Charles Tranberg delivers it in this book, apparently the first ever real MacMurray bio, from Bear Manor. He doesn't unearth new revelations about the star's personal life, nor his career, but just by laying out his work and putting it all in context, he makes a convincing case for Freddie Mac's relevance in the screen world, both big and small.

Tranberg dispenses early on with any notion that his bio will include gossip or salacious details. There just isn't that much to report on Freddie Mac, except maybe his reputation for being a tightwad. There's a brief mention of toupee use. Maybe a few co-stars found him distant. Other than that, there ain't much scandal here, folks. Does that make the man boring? No, not at all, nor is the book uninteresting. I enjoyed reading about a well-liked good citizen who kept his nose clean while entertaining millions.

You do get a good sense of the man, even though the author is working with a shy subject who didn't go around making a lot of waves in public. However, the book focuses on MacMurray's career, providing a fine account of his work, mostly in films and TV. Tranberg covers a lot of ground and offers some critical context without getting carried away. One useful feature is the appendix, which not only runs down all Fred's movies, but also provides sample review excerpts for each one, as well as trivia not included in the main text. Plus there's a "My Three Sons" episode guide.

Speaking of "Sons," I watched plenty of it when Family Net picked up the Uncle Charley years recently. I think the "MacMurray method" has hurt the star's reputation. Notoriously, he got a sweet deal in which he knocked off all his scenes right off the bat, got to go home early, and the rest of the cast worked around him, with everything assembled later through the magic of editing. I know that when I found out about this, I chuckled and made jokes about what a slacker he was, etc. But as Tranberg shows, Freddie Mac didn't want to do series TV at that point in his life, preferring to spend as much time at home and with his family as possible. He set the terms he got not to be a jerk, but because it was the only possible way he would do the show. All things considered, it worked out pretty well, and who can blame the guy for raking in the cash while keeping his hours down? He was professional and hard-working when he was on the set, after all.

"Fred MacMurray" is an enjoyable read and a must for fans. The only quibble I have with Tranberg's writing is that he tends to combine phrases with commas when he should either use semicolons or separate sentences. This leads to some awkward sentences every now and then. Overall, though, the author's organization and research are outstanding, and he provides an engaging look at one of Hollywood's lesser-discussed stars.

Friday, May 29, 2009

This Week in DVD

Land of the Lost: Complete Series: Just in time for the big-screen version coming out soon, it's a full set of the old-school kid show. Maybe there'll be a "Great Space Coaster" movie so I can see some of those again. "LOTL" isn't something I can watch now for more than an episode at a time, maybe, but it still has a certain charm. Of course, if it were made today, Holly and the dinosaurs would have to be in a rock band.

Designing Women Season 1: Although I was never a fan, I respect the show for presenting something that's not all that common in the world of sitcoms: a largely female cast and a group of southern characters who aren't portrayed as idiots just because of their geographical disposition. See the early episodes, before the show became known for Delta Burke's controversies and the producers' relationship with the Clintons.

The Mod Squad Season 2 Volume 2 and Gunsmoke Season 3 Volume 2: Have you noticed how the further we get into a TV show's run, the more ridiculous the split-season titles look?

Mega Shark vs. Octopus: OK, I have no idea what this is, but I just want to get in a plug for the shark. Go, shark! Whoo-hoo! Rah rah!

Saturday Morning Cartoons sets--1960s and 1970s: At first, I thought this was kind of a weak effort from WB, packaging a bunch of cartoon episodes almost at random instead of giving full season sets for the individual shows. However, I didn't grow up on these shows. My informal survey of the Internet shows these releases are gonna make a lot of people happy. Hey, not everybody gets Boomerang, and even Boomerang doesn't even show a lot of these anymore.

Powder Blue: This compendium of independent movie cliches (interconnected plotlines, transsexual, drug addiction, etc.) does feature something you haven't seen at the arthouse cinema lately: Jessica Biel topless. I hope for her sake she wasn't bamboozled into thinking she had a shot at "cred" in this one. You'd think she would have saved that for 10 years down the road when she's trying to resurrect her career. Anyway, as a public service, I quote "The Karaoke Kid" on Netflix, who posts what is surely the single most useful review anyone has written for this film:

If you're just interested in Jessica Biel's nude scenes, go to the 1:09 mark. That's when she does her striptease. There's another topless scene around the 1:24 mark and a butt shot around the 1:27 mark.

Killshot: How did a movie from John Madden (no, not the Frank Caliendo muse, but the guy who directed "Shakespeare in Love") with Ray Liotta, Diane Lane, and Mickey Rourke; let alone Joseph Gordon Leavitt, Thomas Jane, and Rosario Dawson; based on an Elmore Leonard novel, no less; come straight to video with nary a peep? Oh, it's from the Weinstein Company, where apparently, if you ain't getting Oscars, you ain't getting distributed. I looked this one up, and you know, it kinda sounds not all that bad.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Panel Discussion: Superboy Explains It All

This is early in the story in Adventure Comics #267 (as reprinted in Showcase Presents: Legion volume 1), and Superboy is gracious enough to give us a rundown of who this outlandishly-clad flying fella is.

Well, it had been 20 issues, so I don't blame him. But what gets me is that he describes it as "a stirring adventure" in his own interior monologue. That whole first encounter left a strong impression, indeed, on young Clark. I'm surprised he doesn't refer to that "rousing yarn" he took part in when he meets Lightning Lad soon after.

I also like how he puts "The Legion of Super-Heroes" in quotation marks. Comic books used to go all kinds of crazy with quotes, commas, and all kinds of punctuation, but in this case it almost looks like Superboy thinks it's a BS name. "Ah, it's Cosmic Boy from the so-called Legion."

Or maybe he believes the Legion is a fictional creation. Hey, you don't suppose he KNOWS that we read that stirring adventure in issue #247, do you?

This I Believe: The Iceman Don't Cometh

This I believe:

I believe that whatever we gained in convenience with the advent of electric household refrigeration, we more than lost in comic potential from the decline of the iceman who delivers ridiculously large blocks of ice directly to the household.

This I believe.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

First Impulse: CW's Fall 2009 Schedule

I'm giving my uneducated, unreasoned takes on the networks' new fall schedules announced last week. Oh, yeah, and I'm also talking about fake networks like the CW.

It's funny how the powers that be combined two netlets with small but relevant niches--UPN and WB--and turned them into one netlet that, despite theoretically combining the best of each, is less relevant than the two put together, still has identity issues (what kind of a name is the CW?) and faces rumors of its demise every few months or so.

The fact that CW (is it CW or the CW? Much like "The Batman" vs. just Batman, I get confused. Unlike that debate, I do't really care) is giving back Sundays to its affiliates doesn't inspire confidence, but that's the new trend. NBC gave up 10:00 PM, CW gave up's only a matter of time before someone gives up Saturdays. I mean, really gives it up; I know the majors already have for all intents and purposes.

I think I'm stalling, so let me get to it and try to discuss the new fall schedule for (the) CW.

Mondays bring "Gossip Girl," AKA Entertainment Weekly's favorite show ("30 Rock" doesn't count because to "EW," "30 Rock" is HIGH ART), followed by another teen soap, "One Tree Hill," which returns for its 17th season, breaking the previous teen soap record of "Beverly Hills 90210," which was on for 16 long seasons, overstaying its welcome and making sure we'd all be sick of it for decades to come.

On Tuesdays, CW leads off with...uh, "90210." It seems like many people want this show to succeed, but nobody actually watches it besides Diablo Cody. Well, at least CW has a new show at 9:00 PM. That is, if you count a "reboot" of "Melrose Place" as new. Christ, are they saving a revamp of "The Heights" for midseason? No wonder this network doesn't matter.

Wednesday offers yet another season--excuse me, cycle--of "America's Next Top Model." After that, it's "The Beautiful Life," a fashion drama produced by Ashton Kutcher, who is becoming like the Aaron Spelling of crappy reality TV. Sure, these two shows may look like perfect matches for each other on the schedule, but so what? A White Lion/Winger concert bill might be compatible, but...

On Thursday, CW goes goth. Seriously, that's what they're gonna say. They'll try to get some of that "Twilight" action with a vampire show at 8:00, then follow that with "Supernatural." Is that GOTH enough for you?
Fridays this fall, it's "Smallville," which has been on almost as long as "One Tree Hill." It actually went past the stage where he went from Superboy to Superman years ago; this year he leaves Metropolis, gets a condo in Boca Raton, and fights supervillains only 4 days a week and only before 4:00 PM. After "Smallville," it's "encore presentations" of "America's Next Model."

I'd say a network that can't even program 5 nights a week, two hours a night, without resorting to repeating itself doesn't deserve to be on the air. But, really, look at what else is on TV. How many options are there?

I fought the HOA, and the HOA won

You know the old adage, right? Homeowners' Associations: Can't live with 'em, can't prevent the neighbors from turning their adjacent property to a orange-and-pink flophouse without 'em.

Well, let me quote a learned individual who recently opined in a prestigious public forum:

"My HOA is a pain in my A."

OK, it was me posting on Facebook, but still, I think it has a nice ring to it.

We got a letter last week from this overpaid and underpolite organization saying that because some punk had swiped the crossbar in our outdoor lamppost, and because the lantern on top of the post had a single pane of glass missing, we had to rectify those conditions in order to be in compliance with HOA standards.

Actually, the letter was a tad more, shall I say, vague. What it actually said was, "REPAIR LAMP POST." We kind of filled in the blanks ourselves after a call to a snooty official who, when we asked for details so we could be sure to be in compliance, told us we should know what's wrong.

Fortunately, they just happen to have a "limited supply" of the crossbars available in their office.

"For a price, Ugarte, for a price."
--Rick Blaine in "Casablanca"

They also had a limited supply a few years back, the last time some punk swiped ours.

I could go on a rant here about how a necessary evil like a homeowners' association can get a little full of itself, but I'll save that rent for another day. Maybe I'll bring in as Guest Blogger the Vietnam combat vet who told us at Home Depot yesterday how his own HOA tried to get him to take down his American flag and he told them to get the hell off his property or he'd shoot them.

Anyhoo, I got the necessary paperwork--oh, yeah, there's paperwork involved with this. See, we can't just get a new lantern, but since our model is discontinued, we have to submit the new one for approval by the HOA Junta of Architectural Design and Chowder and Marching Society.

So I got the paperwork, attached a printout of the lantern we want to buy from the store--surprisingly, they don't sell lanterns in the office--and went to drop it off. At that point I was told, hey, you need the signatures.

"Really?" I said a bit too loudly.

"Yeah, you need signatures of your 4 closest neighbors verifying that they approve."

So we need approval of our neighbors for a little lantern that sits atop a lamppost. Hell, we're one of the only people that try to change our light bulbs when they go out. I doubt this will be a problem, but the point is that it's a HASSLE.

I'm taking a positive tack with this latest development, though. I believe that this requirement for signatures is not merely an exercise in bureaucratic nonsense from an organization that has no right to impose it. No, I'm thinking it's actually an a-hole detector. See, any neighbor that would take exception to this new lantern we want to get--excuse me, HAVE to get--is most likely an a-hole and therefore not a desirable neighbor. The HOA is merely providing an efficients tool that we can use to weed out the bad eggs in our midst.

At least, that's what I'm telling myself. But if the a-hole detector does its job, we get 4 signatures, submit the paperwork, and the Junta rejects us...well, I know a vet who has some strong ideas about individual property rights...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

5Q Movie Review: Frank Miller's Will Eisner's The Spirit

Q: Is this movie like the comic book?
A: Yes and no. Miller includes many of the key elements of Will Eisner's "Spirit" universe, including characters, plot elements, and even references to specific memorable Spirit stories. But the tone and feel is different. Eisner's work came off as subtler and more meaningful even as it had fun with the conventions of the form. This adaptation is over the top, with the combination of noirish look and cartoonish story and characters never quite working.

Q: Speaking of the look, is this basically a "Sin City" sequel? Does that style work here?
A: I believe the distinctive visual style of "Sin City" worked better with that adaptation. Maybe I'm biased because I have long enjoyed Spirit comic books; maybe I just resent seeing Miller use similar strategies here. There are some really cool-looking scenes and shots throughout this movie. But the overall effect diminishes the humanity of what is, at least in the comics, not just a fun experience, but often a touching one with a strong undercurrent of humanity.

Q: How about the story here? It involves The Spirit going up against his archrival The Octopus, right? Is that taken from a comic book story?
A: The character of The Octopus is, though in the comics we never see his face, while here Sam Jackson is on full display. As for the story, well, I don't think it's directly from the comics, but it's hard to tell, See, perhaps the single biggest flaw of this film is that the story is a bit jumbled...even though it feels like 75% of it is characters reciting exposition.

Q: Hey, aren't the women gorgeous, though?
A: Sure, there's plenty of eye candy for the guys, with Eva Mendes capturing the femme fatale look. The acting is a different story. I understand why filmmakers want to cast Scarlett Johansson in femme fatale roles--her looks and smoky voice make her a natural, one might think. But she can't pull it off, and her performance here is the weakest of all.

He's not a woman, but Samuel L. Jackson provides a rare disappointing performance here. I think maybe Miller asked him to be as "big" as he is here, and it just doesn't work. The ladies may like Gabriel Macht as the Spirit, but he doesn't leave much impression on me one way or the other.

Q: OK, smart guy, do YOU have any ideas how to do this movie better?
A: Actually, I do. I might be able to live with the "Sin City" look if this approach were taken: An anthology format. OK, realistically, nobody would want to make this, but you asked me. The original Spirit stories were 8 pages, and the title character often made a token appearance or none at all. I would like to see a series of segments based on the original classic stories, with the Spirit playing a big role in some, maybe less in others. You know, a structure similar to that of..."Sin City."

Miller's emphasis of the strong connection The Spirit has to Central City--the city itself as an entity--would work fine with such an approach--actually, better. Go with something like this, tone down the dialogue, tweak the casting and/or performances--voila. Easy for me to say, right? But that's just my take. As a longtime reader, I don't think this version is garbage, but it doesn't work for me, either. By the way, the DVD extras are disappointing, too. What I heard of the commentary didn't delve into Miller's rationale for going about this the way he did.

Friday, May 22, 2009

In which I gripeth once more about Entertainment Weekly

This decade, many magazines responded to declining circulation and increased competition from the Internet by shifting away from being a publication of record or a first look for news and info, and moving towards more depth and analysis.

Not so "Entertainment Weekly." I'll admit, it was never "Foreign Affairs," but it used to offer some punchy writing and sometimes clever analysis to accompany its slick look. Over the past several years, though, someone over there got the bright idea to try to be MORE like the Internet. So the word count keeps going down while the pictures keep getting bigger and the charts and graphs keep multiplying.

Worse, the mag morphed into a weird blend of boosting certain favorites like "30 Rock" and "Heroes" (even when the show started to bite, "EW" milked THAT angle for all it could before finally letting it go) while turning into "EnterTEENment Weekly." So now the typical issue is packed with stories and pics spotlighting "Gossip Girl," "90210," and that sort of thing. Even the once-reliable list issues usually consider "all time" as dating back to the mid 80s or so.

I've bitched about this for months, but indulge me again, if you will, as I venture into the latest issue (well, today is Friday, and I just got a new issue in the mail today with Eminem on the cover--yippee--but cut me some slack).

The cover story is about the new "Terminator" movie. A weak third film and a weaker TV series killed the franchise for me, but I expected this article would at least try to convince me why another installment had creative justification. Nah, it's mostly about Christian Bale trying to convince us he's not a jerk and director McG trying to convince us he doesn't suck.

It's downhill from there. Let's go back to the beginning. After the letters, we get the Must List, which is a top 10 of things they want to hype stretched out to fill a two-page spread. This feature is even more of a waste than usual, picking as "musts" the TRAILER for "Julia and Julia" and a 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Lanny Kravitz's "Let Love Rule."

Next is the "First Look" feature, chock full of big publicity pics, headlined this issue by Disney Channel star Selena Gomez. After News and Notes, which manages to get a Justin Timberlake/SNL mention in ("EW" is also obsessed with Timberlake these days), it's Stephen King's column. King is always entertaining. Give the mag credit for keeping an old guy at the front of the mag, one who talks about books and stuff.

Then it's back to the suck with "Style Hunter," a relatively new regular feature that runs allegedly real questions from readers asking, "Where can I get the dress worn by so and so on so and so?" And wouldn't you know it, the intrepid journalists at "EW" track down the answers and conveniently provide purchasing sources and info. But wait, there's more fashion! See, next is the Style Report Card, which is "EW's" apparent homage to "US."

After our look at "The Terminator," we get to the real heart of the issue. Did you know Kristin Cavallari is replacing Lauren Conrad on "The Hills"? Well, you can read all about it in a feature article. Then it's a look at stars like Zac Efron splitting with Disney. Miley Cyrus might kind of want to move on to do other things soon. Wow. This one-two punch is followed by a hard-hitting profile of Jon and Kate Plus 8. At this point, I'm considering buying a pet bird just to get the cage so I can line it with this issue.

I can't say much about the two-page breakdown of the "Lost" season finale (I skipped this because I haven't seen the episode yet), but I do think the mag's annointing of Jeff Jensen as "Doc," some kind of "Lost" guru, gets sillier each time I see evidence of it.

The Reviews section in the back is still decent, but "EW" irritated me recently by cutting back its DVD coverage. I guess the staff there is giving up on the format like all these people who are claiming we're all going digital only in a few years. Well, even if that were so, this periodical could improve by giving me info about what's happening now on DVD. Of course, it can't give me info about "What's Happening Now!" on DVD because that one isn't out yet.

After the Reviews section ends--and, by the way, I do credit this publication for continuing to cover books--the "treat" on the back page is now no longer a column, but the Bullseye feature. Formerly a small visual in the front section, this takes up a whole page with brief comments about what "hit" and "missed"--in other words, an excuse to get more plugs in for the stuff already plugged in the rest of the magazine, or to slam some easy targets. Oh, yes, most importantly, replacing those boring words that used to reign over the back page, it's lots of little PICTURES! YAY!

"Entertainment Weekly" was never a highbrow publication, nor was it intended as such. Nor should it be. But it was itself quite entertaining at one time, and it could be again. Unfortunately, the current regime, possibly under corporate dictates, has decided to young it down and dumb it down, and the apparent effort to make reading it more like the Internet has made the periodical less relevant.

I keep seeing rumors that it's future is in jeopardy, and I don't doubt that. But while it may just be wishful thinking, I DO doubt the notion that a mass-market general entertainment magazine can't survive without cloning "People," "Us," and "Teen Beat"--and, anyway, how are those mags doing these days?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

First Impulse: Comedy Central's new shows

Over the next week or so, I'll be giving my early reactions to the new fall schedules announced by the networks. Comedy Central is a cable channel, and it doesn't really have a schedule so much as a "Find new show, play it 10 times a week" strategy, but I'll start by expressing my first take on the new shows that CC ordered for the near future, a lineup which I first saw listed here.

*Ugly Americans: Comedy Central could use some fresh animated blood, and this one sounds interesting. It's New York City, and "creatures from the horror and fantasy genres live among ordinary people." I'll give it a try, but I fear it could turn out to be another "Drawn Together."

*Untitled Jamie Foxx Project: Uh, no. An animated show based on his satellite radio show? He HAS a radio show? Does he sing like Ray Charles for 45 minutes, then talk to his entourage for 15?

*Untitled Andy Dick Project: The article says this sketch/variety show will be 11 minutes long, which seems odd but is even odder when you consider it's about 9 more minutes than most of us can stand the guy. I don't know why people keep thinking there's some kind of untapped genius in Andy Dick that doesn't involve him passing out in nightclubs or scuffling with Jon Lovitz. Hey, that would be a show right there.

*Untitled Ron White Project: I just don't "get" Ron White, but I guess I'm not a Heartland kind of guy. Heartland, this one's for you. (True story: I didn't even read the description before I wrote my comment. Then I went back, read the synopsis, and saw that it actually used the word "heartland" and, unlike me, not in a smart-ass context.)

*Best Buds: Marijuana comedy. Probably lame. But I can't believe Method Man and Redman haven't already made a movie with this title.

*Midwest Teen Sex Show: This can't possibly be as interesting as its name. It sounds like "Loveline" lite, but I'm wary of anything that promises to discuss subjects with "comic verve."

*Gypsy Cab: Judah Friedlander is a nutty cab driver who picks up a bunch of guests that, from the article's indications, happen to be a bunch of comedians. I don't know if they play "themselves," like sort of a taxi-driving "Dr. Katz," but that could work.

*The Life: "will reunite Ice Cube and DJ Pooh for their first project since the film 'Friday.'" FINALLY! Hallelujah! How can Cube have gone so long without reuniting with DJ Pooh?

*Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down: Hey, a show based on that movie that's on cable all the time but that I never watch.

*The Sklar Brothers Sports Comedy Show: I like the Sklars and, believe it or not, I miss their ESPN Classic series "Cheap Seats." This sounds promising--they play brothers who own a trading card company--but haven't they been doing the same thing on the web?

*The Invadersteins: Good title for this animated show about an alien couple that is left behind by its invading brethren when the attack goes wrong. This sounds like it could be kind of good.

*Ghosts/Aliens: A comedy about "stoners that expose the truth about ghosts and aliens." I bet someone was pissed that the title "Best Buds" was taken.

There are some promising projects here and some that I promise not to watch. But Comedy Central can always use some new blood. I respect that it remains true to its roots in showing standup as often as it does, and I can't argue with the success and impact of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report." But its original scripted series often miss with me, and the ones that I do like pop up in short batches, then disappear to reruns for months. So I welcome the network giving a bunch of green lights and seeing what sticks.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

True Confessions

This week, my wife and I watched the season finale of "Desperate Housewives," which resolved the season-long Dave Williams storyline. Dave, played with entertaining creepiness all year by Neal McDonough, conceived an elaborate revenge plan centered on killing Teri Hatcher's Susan and her little boy M.J.

It was a satisfying season-ender, but I gotta tell you: I used to scoff a tiny bit when I heard parents talk about how since they got children, they had trouble watching TV shows and movies that depicted kids in jeopardy. Well, "scoff" is a bit loaded, perhaps, but part of me was skeptical. "Come on," I'd often think, "fiction is fiction, and reality is reality."

Unfortunately, it's not so simple as being able to "tell the difference," as I well know now that I have a young daughter. Watching that episode made me cringe, squirm, and feel uncomfortable, but not always in a good way. Suspenseful entertainment is fine, but, man, there IS that identification factor where I visualize myself or my child, and want to kind of shudder. It's not impossible to view or even enjoy stories like this, but it is a lot tougher nowadays.

Do I feel guilty about feeling this way, you ask? No, of course not. Ah, you want to know what the True Confession is, huh?

Simple. I'm not embarrassed to admit that having a daughter affects the way I react to certain shows. After several years, though, I'm STILL embarrassed to admit I watch "Desperate Housewives."

State of Confusion

From the "I know it's true 'cause I saw it on TV" department: While watching TV this morning, the Emergency Broadcast System rudely interrupted me with a test. The text on the screen informed that it was a required monthly test for parts of Maryland, Virginia, "and the state of Washington D.C."

Hey, citizens of the District, you really DO have a gripe about not being represented in Congress. Not only do you not have a voting rep in the House, you're apparently being screwed out of your allotment of two Senators, as well.

I remind you, though, it was only a test. In the event of an actual emergency...

I'll hope the authorities have their stuff together a bit more than that message indicated.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

This Week in DVD

Valkyrie: Uh, I haven't done due diligence on this one this week because, frankly, I thought this movie came and went on DVD months ago. It's the WWII flick in which Tom Cruise, as a German soldier, wore an eye patch for authenticity but didn't bother with a German accent. An eye patch in a two-hour-plus movie? Big deal, fella. A guy wore one on 'Days of Our Lives" for YEARS, and that was 5 days a week.

Man Hunt: This title is of course a natural tie-in with "Valkyrie" because...
Well, because it features someone targeting Adolf Hitler. If you thought I was going to make a "Man Hunt" joke about Tom Cruise, well, this blog is too classy for that. And too non-lawyered up. Unlike in "Valkyrie," star Walter Pidgeon does not wear an eye patch, at least not that I recall.

By my calculations, this release of "Man Hunt" brings the number of loaded DVDs of classics from the Fox library this year Seriously, something happened over there, and the once-rocking studio has come to a halt with its back catalogue. Enjoy this tie-in marketing opportunity while you can. But while you're enjoying it, ask Fox what the heck happened to its Film Noir line.

Paul Blart, Mall Cop: I heard that Kevin James originally thought Paul Blart should wear an eye patch in this movie.

Warner Brothers "Collections": I am going to put aside the question of the inherent desirability of a "Charles Bronson Collection" consisting of "Teflon" and "St. Ives" (Charles Bronson fans probably have guns). Where does WB get off calling a DVD with TWO movies "a collection"? The Steve McQueen Collection, or any of the slew of similar releases from the studio this week, should have more than just two flicks. I don't care what the dictionary says, that's a double feature, not a collection. WB even put "Double Feature" at the top of the boxes. They know.

Peyton Place Volume 1: It's a cool surprise that this early nighttime serial drama/soap is coming to DVD, but I find it odd that we haven't seen any cutesy black and white TV ads touting "Peyton Manning's Place" as the Colts QB is digitally inserted in old footage to "interact" with Ryan O'Neal. Can Shout Factory be the only entity in Corporate America that can't talk Peyton Manning into pitching its product?

Paramount Centennial Collections: 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and "El Dorado": Centennial in this case refers to the number of times the movies have already been out on DVD, and, yes, I think I made the same smart-ass remark a while back when some Audrey Hepburn movies came out, but if Paramount is gonna recycle its movies, I'm gonna recycle my jabs.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle: Paramount saves those movies it hasn't released 100 times for Criterion. I've never seen this Mitchum flick, wanted to see it, and now will see it eventually. A lot of people who like a lot of movies I do like this one a lot.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wonderful World of TCM: Shockproof (1949)

Even when I see a movie I think is just so-so and far from "classic" on Turner Classic Movies, I still appreciate the chance to see it. I recently freed up some space on the old DVR by screening a few not-so-classics I had on there. I don't mean to demean these films; they just don't do it for me.

Case in point is "Shockproof "(1949): Billed as a noir, but not really all that noir to me, nor all that compelling. There are several elements that might excite a lot of film buffs out there--Douglas Sirk is the director, and the original screenplay (apparently modified rather drastically later) is credited to Sam Fuller. Plus that's a promising title. But it doesn't all gel, and it culminates in a ridiculous ending.

Cornell Wilde is a parole officer who is in charge of recent jailbird Patricia Knight. I don't know a whole lot about Knight except that she's hot to trot as both a blonde and a brunette here, and also she was married to Wilde at the time. I'm not a big Wilde fan, but I have to admire the dedication of his character here. He's so committed to his job, and to his charge's welfare, that when she's released, he insists on personally giving her a ride, then taking her to dinner! What a swell egg!

The dinner is at his Mama's house, and she is very Italian and very blind. But even though-a she no can-a see-a with her eyes, she can-a see-a with her heart-a. She's played by Esther Minicotti--I wonder if she's a cousin of Mrs. Manicotti from "The Honeymooners"?

Anyway, the conscientious Wilde gets Knight a job working with Mama at the boarding house. Here he can keep an eye on her all the time...and also keep an eye on her all the time, if you know what I mean. As lecherous as I'm making this sound, the film doesn't really play it that way. Wilde comes off as sort of clueless about how inappropriate he is. Well, sooner or later, he falls in love with her, which surely has more than a little to do with his constant warnings to her not to hang out with the lowlife creep who got her mixed up in crime (and in the joint) in the first place.


Eventually this all comes to a head when the lowlife gets annoyed that "his gal" is getting feelings for Mr. Unethical Goody Two-Shoes, she winds up shooting him, so Cornel and Patricia go on the lam. It's them against the world for a while, which leads to some interesting change-of-pace scenes while they're on the road but fails to serve up a classic noirish atmosphere, or even a compelling melodrama, for that matter.

But "Shockproof" goes from bland to worse at the conclusion, when the two new lovebirds return and visit the ex in the hospital. He's recovering from the shooting...and also, apparently, from being jilted, because he gives them his blessing in an, "Aw, get outta here, you two!" nudge-nudge-wink-wink bit. So Cornel and Patricia skip out of there, off to live forever in happiness, and the hardened criminal that she shot is gonna make it, and he's cool with them being together.

Does that sound noirish to you? Heck, no, and even if the preceding 70-some minutes were more hard-boiled, it would all go up in cotton candy with this conclusion.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The very notion of "rebooting" jumps the shark: "Cliffhanger" Returns

I was already sick of the overused concept of "rebooting" movie and TV franchises, and then I saw this story, which took my sickness from runny nose to swine flu (before we stopped being all afraid of it and stuff).

This is a real article, folks, one you can read here

I only wish I could conceive of something this funny.

StudioCanal has announced that it will be teaming with Neal Moritz's L.A.-based Original Films to reboot 1993's Cliffhanger, the action adventure thriller directed by Renny Harlin and starring Sylvester Stallone.

They're gonna reboot CLIFFHANGER? You know what I remember about that movie? When John Lithgow told Stallone, "I must admit you're a real piece of work," and Sly replied, "Yeah, well, I must admit you're a real piece of shit." And I think Lithgow was in a helicopter at the time. Will the reboot capture that scintillating repartee as well as the action, adventure, and thrills?

Variety says the new version will center on a group of young climbers. "Just as they rebooted 'Star Trek,' we're going to do the same with 'Cliffhanger,'" said Moritz, who will produce. Unlike the original, where Italy stood in for the Colorado Rockies, the new redo looks set to feature multiple cliff-face locations

Emphasis mine in the above paragraph. Yep, just as they rebooted "Star Trek."

The end of the article mentions they hope to get a screenwriter soon. Because, you know, this concept is so solid, that the script is really just a formality. The important thing is that they get the wheels in motion and get this brand going again. Uh-huh.

Are there people sitting around worrying about how the "Cliffhanger" fanbase will react to a reboot? I have this great image of Sly Stallone calling Moritz up and saying, "Hey, yo, I can do this again." Then maybe Moritz persuades him to "accept" a cameo...because, hey, the Cliffhangies will revolt if Stallone isn't involved somehow.

Maybe they should make a movie about Neal Moritz, who seems to have brass ones bigger than any screen action hero out there right now.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Brooks on Books: 39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss by Tom Davis

First, the good news about this memoir. I'm all about positivity, you know.

The good news is that Tom Davis, half of the comedy team of Franken and Davis and longtime writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live," has enough in the tank here to produce an entertaining read. I buzzed through it quickly, and despite his admittedly poor memory, he gives a reasonable amount of anecdotes from his career and adventures. I have issues with the book, for sure, but I can't deny that I had fun reading it and did so rapidly.

Now the bad news: If you're getting this hoping for insight into the early days of "Saturday Night Live," or even the post-Lorne-sabbatical "SNL," you will be disappointed. Even though Tom Davis was around for many of those years, even though he was a pivotal behind-the-scenes figure in addition to his on-camera roles, even though he palled around with Dan Aykroyd...
heck, even though the book is subtitled, 'The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There," and even though Aykroyd's blurb on the back says "...finally a book about SNL from someone who actually was there..."

this is NOT really an "SNL" book. It's shocking how sparse that material is, especially given what else is in here. There's a lot of stuff about the drugs Davis took in the seventies (and the eighties and the nineties...), and there's a whole chapter about Timothy Leary. Oh, and there's a wealth of information about the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. Oh, MAN, is there a wealth of Dead stuff. It's frustrating reading so much about Garcia, who doesn't even come off as that great a guy, when you want "SNL" stories, or even comedy stories.

If you're willing to overlook that bait and switch, you still might be in for disappointment because the writing itself is a mess. There appears to be no editorial involvement, and the text jumps around with no clear order. Not only does Davis bounce randomly from chapter to chapter, but he includes bizarre, abrupt transitions within chapters, or pages, even. Some examples:

*After an account of a failed screenplay called "1985," on the top of the next page, we see, "Belushi's memorial was held at St. John the Divine..." This comes out of nowhere, as Belushi wasn't even being discussed.

*Davis offers a brief summary of sketches he contributed after returning to SNL in 1988, then suddenly: "I married Mimi Raleigh in 1991. She's a brilliant veterinarian." Then there's a mention of another sketch.

*He describes the making of the disastrous Franken-Davis movie "One More Saturday Night," but there's not even a line of white space before the next paragraph takes us to a quick anecdote about several months later, when a woman whose son's best friend was dying of cancer wants to meet Garcia. Lorne Michaels asks Davis about, but since Jerry was getting over a diabetic coma, he doesn't bother with him it. Bummer.

*The ultimate bizarre (non)seque comes after a description of a visit to Dachau, site of an infamous Nazi death camp. After a little white space, there's a story of how George Harrison visited the show in 1991 and entertained everyone around by playing piano and singing in the writers' room till Franken got ticked off and slammed his own door shut to demonstrate it. Davis writes, "That still makes me laugh just to think about it." Perhaps this jarring end to the chapter is making some kind of point about tragedy and comedy, but I think to believe that is to give the book too much credit.

Davis is a funny guy with some tales to share, but his autobiography comes up short. Despite its flaws and jarring lack of flow, a little more substance--as opposed to substance abuse-would make this a quality read. At one point, he describes telling a friend that his writing style for this book is based on understatement. Acknowledging it doesn't excuse it. He drifts through years of "SNL" after Lorne Michaels comes back to the show, rarely getting material on the air, but he shares little about the experience. At one late point, he mentions that almost every episode made someone on the writing staff unhappy because something of theirs didn't get on. You want him to elaborate on that and provide some more depth, but the point is abandoned.

My advice is to give this a through browsing in person before you buy it, and be forewarned that it's an amusing but frustrating memoir.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Journey Into DVD: Davey and Goliath: The Lost Episodes.

Let me tell you why this recent DVD release is so disapointing. Come back with me to one quiet evening a few weeks ago when I put in my rental copy and sat back for an evening of "Davey and Goliath." My baby daughter was asleep, my wife was still at work--what better way to enjoy a few hours of solitude than with some quasi-religious stop-motion animation? Maybe not the most wild-and-crazy night, I grant you, but, hey, I like the show.

These weren't just any episodes of 'Davey and Goliath," these were the BANNED ones, the installments that, until recently, hadn't been on TV in years (I believe some of them still aren't shown). Yeah! NOW is this starting to sound like a wild night? You're darned right.

Before I get back to the DVD itself, I will show off a little bit and read your mind. You're wondering, "What the HELL could have made ONE Davey and Goliath episode undesirable on TV, let alone a whole disc's worth?" Pretty good, eh? And you even used the word "HELL," too.

Well, consultation with expert and good friend of Cultureshark Wik E. Pedia reveals the questionable stuff here consists of the usual staples of offensive TV programs--you know, language, nudity, and violence.

Of course, in this case, it's politically incorrect language (like referring to Native Americans as "Indians"), fleeting shots of Davey skinny sipping, and threats of violence or actual scuffling nowhere near that on the average episode of another show of that era like, say, "Mannix." This is kind of the odd thing about these episodes being pulled by the Lutheran Church (which financed and distributed the show): Only people who actually watch "Davey and Goliath" might be motivated enough to complain about this kind of stuff, and even then, is the Christian values crowd really all that worked up about whether or not a 40-year-old cartoon uses the phrase "Indians"?

There are other transgressions in these Lost Episodes, but as I sat down to watch the DVD, I wanted to forget about those I knew about and not learn about those I didn't. One of the disc's drawbacks (but not the main one) is the lack of bonus material or context of any kind. This certainly detracts from the package, but it makes it easier to go into the episodes cold.

I anticipated a fun experience of figuring out the naughty bits as I watched them. What would be the taboo moment that killed a given short in syndication? I enjoyed the show, anyway, but I figured this would give me a whole new level of enjoyment other than nostalgia.

So I started with the first episode, "Cousin Barney," and I waited for something offensive--even mildly offensive--to show up.

And I waited. And I waited. I waited some more. OK, these things don't go more than 15 minutes, but it felt like a while.

I didn't find anything objectionable, save maybe for the fact that this Cousin Barney character made a real ass of himself by screwing up the whole Hansen family's activities. What was the deal? I scratched my head trying to figure out why someone flagged the episode. I even went back and checked out a scene or two and kind of scanned through it, making sure I didn't miss anything.

I still found nothing. I felt like a real fool. Was I so insensitive, so jaded by modern-day "anything goes" sensibilities that I had lost my moral compass and couldn't pick out the no-nos in a children's cartoon?

Well, there was a good reason I came up empty. "Cousin Barney" is EDITED, as are some of the others on this disc. Apparently (again, credit to ol' Wik here), there was a sequence of the kids playing "Cowboys and Indians" that was removed, but instead of restoring it for this "Lost Episodes" DVD...nahhhhh, they just gave us the hacked-up version.

I suppose there is some point in this release. After all, some of the episodes have not been on TV in any form, so there is that. But why, oh, why. on a DVD--a product you have to purchase, rent, or (assuming you have good Christian values, of course) or otherwise obtain through a consentual exchange of goods and/or services, are we shielded from the "shocking" material?

The inclusion of edited episodes is, if not an outright travesty, a real bummer. It took the shine out of my evening. Whether that's proof of the DVD's weakness or my life's lameness is a different matter.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


In lieu of "This Week in DVD," it's a couple o' ITEMS for your edification/my amusement/this space's filling.

ITEM: After Deep Discount yanked my chain as well as the proverbial rug out from under me by terminating my last order, I cussed like Carole Lombard. Sorry, I just read a biography of Fred MacMurray, and the first thing everyone says about his frequent co-star Lombard is how much she swore. Well, I tucked away my choice words last week and placed an order for the $6 complete set of "Dangerous Assignment," an early 1950s Brian Donlevy espionage TV series, after seeing a tip from Bob via Ivan.

Much to my delight, the set arrived Monday in brand-spanking-new condition, complete with that nauseating new DVD smell you only get from the finest "budget" collections (I think I just realized why I had that headache Monday night). The standard is set pretty low when I'm overjoyed just to receive something I purchased, but I really expected this one to sell out before I got a copy. Score one for the good guys!

ITEM: Kudos to Netflix. The company announced a while back that if it sent a disc from a remote distribution center (relative to the customer), it would offer a "make-good" and send an additional disc. I was skeptical, and since I've been getting my top choices from close centers, anyway, I haven't had much chance to test them, but last week, they sent me an extra since my first choice was in Texas. I am really pleased with this service right now. I'm still cynical enough to root for Blockbuster to do well enough to give them some competition, but I'm pleased.

ITEM: I read that Redbox is scaling back its practice of issuing free rental coupons every Monday, cutting down to the first Monday of each month. Well, that's still pretty good, and I speak on behalf of freeloaders everywhere when I say thanks for offering the freebies as long as you did. I didn't take advantage as often as I wanted to, but I did enough to develop some nice goodwill for the company. Do you detect a theme here today?

ITEM: It's about time we get details on the next Noir box set from Warner Brothers. The company has been rather mum on classic "standard" DVDs in the wake of its Warner Archives rollout, but it did confirm in a chat at Home Theater Forum that there will be an actual film noir box set this year, and it even ruled out several titles suggested by a questioner.

There is still plenty of material for another set, even if it's another 10-movie box, and I sure hope it is. It's fun speculating what titles might be in there. It's also frustrating when you discover some movies aren't candidates because someone else owns the rights. I'm just gonna throw out two I believe are eligible: "The Devil Thumbs a Ride," an awesome b-movie with Lawrence Tierney in full menacing mode; and "The Breaking Point," another adaptation of Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not," only this time noirish and with John Garfield instead of Bogey. I've wanted to see the latter for years and wondered why Turner Classic Movies never ran it.

I'm not at all thrilled with the execution of the Warner Archives program, nor with the accompanying decrease in standard DVD announcements, but the company will make a lot of people happy with an announcement confirming another great film noir set loaded with movies and extras.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

5Q Movie Review: The House Bunny

Q: Is this an empowering, new-age kind of comedy with strong feminine messages, or is it just another silly comedy?
A: Uh...the second one. There are some attempts at messages about deemphasizing superficial things, but this is still a film in which a "Playboy" playmate improves the lives of a third-rate sorority of unpopular giving them all makeovers. And she still has to find a boyfriend, of course, because otherwise, how can she be happy?

Q: Anna Faris is the playmate, and she looks to be doing her patented spacey ditz routine. Yeah, that's funny, but I want to know does she show anything here she hasn't shown a dozen times before?
A: Yeah, her bare ass.

Q: Aha! So--nudity, Playboy, sorority hijinks--we're talking raunchy sex comedy, eh?
A: No, not at all, and please don't get this expecting that. The nudity is designed as more comic than sexy (how you interpret it is your business, of course), and the movie is surprisingly not sexy for a movie about, well, a playmate becoming house mother of a sorority.

Q: But is the movie funny?
A: Oh, it has its moments. I like Faris, and she does what you'd expect here, and there are other talented people like Kat Dennings in the cast. But I got bored about halfway through and lost interest. It's not a bad movie, but it never does enough to stand out, and some of the lamer story elements dominate the movie eventually until it all just kinds of fade away. It's worth the price I paid for a rental--free--and maybe it'll play well on cable TV, but I wouldn't recommend it much beyond that kind of scenario.

Q: One last thing: Rumer Willis as a sex symbol: When and how did this happen?
A: Your guess is as good as mine.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wonderful World of TCM: Island of Doomed Men (1940)

"Island of Doomed Men": Is this not one of the coolest titles ever? I'll help you out if you're stuck: Yes, it is! I wish I could say the movie lives up to it, but that would be a tough task, indeed. As it is, this 1940 Columbia B-pic is missing something or other, but it's worth watching if only for star Peter Lorre. I had never heard of this one until Turner Classic Movies screened it last week, and I love to see them spotlighting some new titles from some different studios. Even if they're not all gems, they're rarely shown, and there's usually something in there to reward you.

In this case, it's mostly all Lorre, at least for me. He is the grand poobah of a remote island that nobody cares about (they say that with a bit more elegance, perhaps, in the movie, but not a whole lot more), suckering the prisons into paroling their inmates so he can use them as slave labor. This is actually a great scam if you can find the right island and the right suckers.

Once they are there, Lorre uses a group of henchmen to keep the doomed men in line with, uh, whips and chains--and, yeah, I just now realized how that sounds. But he also has a pretty wife, played by Rochelle Hudson, and he keeps her a virtual captive on the island as well, though not with whips and chains, at least not that we see. He grapples with undercover con Robert Wilcox as he tries to maintain control of the island, utilizing that cheap labor to...uh, well, I missed that part. I think he's just a prick who likes bossing people around.

One thing Lorre does NOT like is the monkey kept by his manservant--and have I mentioned yet that this B-movie is kind of ridiculous? Several times, Lorre hisses things like, "Keep that monkey AWAY from me," and with Lorre's bulging bug eyes and distinctive voice, how can you not laugh? The ultimate showdown between Lorre and Gleepo the Monkey*, however, is no laughing matter. Let's just say it's an unfair fight, and perhaps under different circumstances, with a level playing field, the outcome would be quite different.

I suppose it's redundant to call a Lorre peformance "creepy," but that's the word that comes to mind here. He's sadistic, controlling, and he hates monkeys. That makes him a Grade A villain in a Grade B pic. It also gives "Island of Doomed Men" most of its oomph.

Prolific Abbott and Costello helmsman Charles Barton directs this one, and I can't help but think that if it's not gonna all the way and become a real horror movie or a more ambitious crime/adventure flick, it could use a little comic relief. You're thinking, "How can a movie with Peter Lorre hissing at a monkey need comic relief?" Your point is well taken, but while there are some entertaining camp elements throughout, just think what a Mantan Moreland could do as one of the doomed men.

I'm not always one to advocate shoehorned-in comedy, but I think "Island" is not quite camp enough, but not quite serious enough, either. Still, there's a lot to enjoy, some notable character actors in the cast, and of course the great Lorre with a typically magnetic performance. All this, and it is over in less than 70 minutes, almost short enough to prevent you from noticing how little sense the story makes.

*Note: I made up the name "Gleepo the Monkey," but don't you think it fits? "Gleepo the Monkey." "Gleepo will return in Island of Doomed Monkeys."

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Brooks on Books: Fletch Won

I recently read this and enjoyed it, much as I did "Fletch," Gregory McDonald's original novel with the characters, so the late author is 2 for 2 with me so far. Anyone familiar with the Fletch books knows the hallmarks: Wise-ass lead character, few descriptive passages, tons of dialogue.

But even those not familiar with the novels may know these things, and to that list we can add that they know Kevin Smith loves them and wants (wanted?) to bring them to film. It looks like that project is dead, but IMDB lists another one in development. The saga of bringing snappy investigative journalist I.M. Fletcher back to the big screen has taken a lot of detours, to the point where I can't figure out where the hell it stands at the moment.

If a new film doesn't come out soon, it'll be a shame because in the right hands it should be a winner. I kept thinking while reading "Fletch Won," "Hey, this could totally be a decent flick." Fletch investigates a dead attorney and winds up encountering a "fitness club" and all kinds of colorful characters. McDonald includes a lot of sharp commentary on the legal system (the way a lawyer friend explains how his big firm works is hilarious) and the police, and a screenplay that could capture that and not just be a string of wise-ass remarks for the title character could really be something.

Plus, "Fletch Won" is the first of the books in chronological order of the character (McDonald jumped around and did prequels and sequels), so no worries about interfering with the previous Fletch movies.

And why do we need to interfere with those movies, anyway? I never found the Chevy Chase Fletches that great. Turns out the second, "Fletch Lives," isn't an adaptation, and nobody likes that one. But the original "Fletch" movie has quite a following. I rewatched it after reading its source material of the same name, the first McDonald wrote. Yeah, the movie=not so great. Chevy Chase is Chevy Chase, for better or worse, and he wears some goofy costumes and says funny things, but many plot elements are different, and besides, a lot of the best-remembered bits and lines aren't in the book, either. So it's not a faithful adaptation, even if you do consider Chase's interpretation of the character definitive.

I think it's a great role for a young actor to come in and knock one out of the park. Who cares about competing with memories of Chase? That was years ago. Maybe we don't even need a young actor. Kevin Smith's stated goal was to cast Jason Lee, and I can see that working. I'll give lots of guys a chance in this part, as long as they're not Ryan Reynolds.

You get the elements of comedy, mystery, plenty of ground for sequels, and even some name recognition. Looks to me like a decent film property if someone can get it going.

Friday, May 8, 2009

You Make The Call: Watching "The Spirit"

THE SCENARIO: You are enjoying a quiet weekend night at home watching a DVD with your wife. Somewhere in the middle of "The Spirit," Paz Vega is on the screen as "Plaster of Paris," apparently doing a French accent, but obviously doing a sexy dance in a skimpy outfit.

Your wife says, almost as soon as the scene begins, "Well, THIS is pointless."

What do you do?


A) Stealthily hit the STOP button on the remote and pretend the DVD is messed up
B) Agree with a response like, "Yeah, this is lame."
C) Say the first thing that comes into your head, which is, "Uh, I can think of TWO great reasons why this scene is happening."
D) Sit there and say nothing at all until the whole thing blows over.


We'll be back after the break with what I did.

OK, we're back. The correct answer is D), and that is in fact what I did. Never mind the fact that Paz Vega is a really hot woman doing hot things in that scene. The rest of the world--i.e. the wife--doesn't need to hear about it. Instead of trying subterfuge, just sit there and wait it out.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Budget DVD Theater: Twenty-One

This series is, of course, famous for being crooked, and if you ask me (or just read me, really), the episode on a dollar DVD I bought at Target a few years ago titled "Game Show Classics" is no exception. "Twenty-One" is so crooked, I have to tilt my head 45 degrees just to watch it.

Actually, I don't know that this episode is rigged, and I don't think I want to know. While watching it, I sure get the feeling that something is up. Is that because of the show's reputation? Yeah, that's part of it, but not all.

Two contestants square off in this one, as the show joins a match in progress "the fourth tie game in a row," according to the announcer)between the champion, Hank; and challenger, Harold. It a thrilling game with drama, tension, and a down-to-the-wire finish. It's almost too good to be true, you might say.

What really catches my eye isn't the game play itself, but rather how the contestants behave. The champ has a habit of taking a lot of his time allotted to give a response, often coming up short initially on one component. Then he makes a big show of thinking, furrowed brow in place, until finally he gets a flash in his eyes, and he says something like, "Oh, I know," and then blurts it out as though it just came to him.

Notice my language is slanted in favor of it all being an act. I admire the whole spectacle if it is; this contestant gives a hell of a performance.

On the other side, the challenger doesn't quite deliver that kind of drama, but he has a just-bordering-on-wise-ass kind of grin that offers a nice contrast to the champ. Harold doesn't throw in the big pauses as often, but he talks through the questions as if he's working the problems out loud to get the answer.

At the end of the show, everyone shakes hands and soaks in the moment, enjoying the aftermath of an outstanding game show match-up. I don't want to give away the dynamics of the match, but you can't help but wonder if quiz programs should be rigged. This episode is a lot of fun, and I don't care if it's all staged. Maybe today a game show scandal would irritate me, but in the realm of Budget DVD Theater, looking back at a show of yore, it's part of the charm, and I almost want it to be as crooked as my suspicions indicate.

To think this DVD only cost a buck! Ah, how I miss the days of rooting through bins for hidden treasures. This disc, which features 5 other old-school TV quiz shows, is surely one of the best dollar DVDs of all time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Let's cut back on these 3 devices...

Writing devices, that is. There are a few little tools that have become too commonplace to my readin' eyes. I am guilty of using these myself, so I pledge to try to cut back on them as well. Here are 3 things I think are being overused:

1) Using. Sentences. Of. One. Word. Each. For. Emphasis.
--This comes in handy in print to get at a choppy but firm way of direct address that usually express forcefulness if not outright hostility. It's way out of control, though, especially in comic books. It has become an all-too-obvious device and has little of the impact it used to. Besides, in comics, a letterer can use fonts or boldface or other stylistic tools to get across an idea. I'd like to see less of this.

Maybe the other widespread use of this is the Comic Book Guy style of declarative, like if he called this post the Worst. Post. Ever. It has its place, but I'm seeing too much of it.

2) Capitalization Of Words For Effect:
--Often to lampoon or call out pretension, like if someone criticized me by claiming I want to "Cover Big Ideas" or be "A Serious Writer." You see this all over the place now, especially when people are talking about pop culture. I've never actually counted, but I suspect Diablo Cody does it a half-dozen times in each of her "Entertainment Weekly" columns: "90210 doesn't need to be about Big Ideas or Relevant Issues. It just needs to be fun! OMG!"

Hell, _I_ use this one too often for emphasis or labels. Writing about "Casablanca," I might refer to Victor Laszlo as a True Believer who needs the assistance of Wounded Romantic Humphrey Bogart I pledge to cut back...or at least try. My referring to TCM as The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind (or any variation) does not count here, as TCM has earned the honorific and I'm not being a wise-acre.

3) WTF:
--I don't have a real hang-up about language, and this is a succinct, effective way of expressing strong surprise or disapproval. But it's one of those nudge-nudge, wink-wink non-obscenities that really kind of is. There's nothing wrong with this acronym, per se, especially in casual conversation, but remember what it stands for. I think it could be utilized in a more conservative fashion than what I've seen.

I don't mind so much when it's used in blogs and such--after all, kids don't know to use the Internet, right? But when MTV announces it's adding a "Best WTF Moment" award to its Movie Awards, I think this expression is a little too mainstream.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Happy Birthday, Kurt Loder

Happy 65th birthday to MTV News figure Kurt Loder, who, amazingly, is still with MTV. At least, he is according to my research ("research" is an old-timey word for "Google").

65! Mr. Loder is old enough to remember when MTV was all about music videos.

HA! Obvious joke, I know, but it's true.

Hey, wait. I'M old enough to remember when MTV was all about music videos.

AAH! I'm old!

Screw you, Kurt Loder!

This Week in DVD

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: A guy is born old and becomes younger as time passes. Oh, sure, when David Fincher does it, it's ART; when "Mork and Mindy" does it with Jonathan Winters, it's just stupid, huh? Actually, it kind of is, but still.

Wendy and Lucy: I must confess, when this acclaimed indie with Michelle Williams came out, there were all sorts of other films in release or on the way about depressing topics like murder, kidnapping, poverty, etc. Yet I took one look at the synopsis, got to the part about Williams' character losing her dog, and I was like, "Ah, that looks really depressing. I don't know if I want to see that."

Last Chance Harvey: Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson show that older people can participate in gentle romantic comedies, too. They also show that in Hollwyood, for all intents and purposes, Emma Thompson is considered as "old" as Dustin Hoffman. By the way, my wife once saw Dustin Hoffman in an airport, but she didn't "meet cute" with him and particpate in a series of witty conversations and silly misunderstandings.

Jake and the Fatman Season 2: Paramount...could...please...Bill just...issuing...all the seasons...of "Cannon"...first...and more...quickly...but, would rather...alternate...them...with this series...and release them...sloooooowly...and in split...seasons...or in this "full season"...with 11 episodes.

That Girl Season 5: Not my "thang," but I give Shout kudos for finishing the series.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Welcome to a new feature we here like to call "Why?" You'll get the idea pretty quickly.

ITEM: ABC expresses interest in bringing back "Scrubs" for a ninth season.

ITEM: Mutual of Omaha threatens legal action against Oprah Winfrey over her use of the phrase "aha moment."

ITEM: Oprah calls ownership of the phrase "aha moment."

ITEM: The band Creed is getting back together.

ITEM: They made a sequel to "A Night at the Museum."

ITEM: TV Land seems to show a dating reality show called "The Cougar" about 40 times a week.

ITEM: According to "Entertainment Weekly," Michael Douglas is signed and on board, and Oliver Stone is ready to do a sequel to "Wall Street."

Yeah, I realize the answer to most if not all of these is $$$ but can you blame a guy for asking?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Brooks on Books: Let's Read Two

Another baseball doubleheader today, sports fans.

Burying the Black Sox by Gene Carney has to be the definitive book on the notorious Black Sox scandal involving the fix of the 1919 World Series. If you saw the excellent "Eight Men Out," you only got some of the story. If you read Elliot Asinof's book of the same name, you only got part of the story. Carney expands on the work of Asinof and many other less-heralded authors and scholars to create a fascinating, thorough account of the saga.

Carney's title refers to the attempt by Sox owner Charles Comiskey and the powers that be in organized baseball to cover up the scandal. This in itself is an underpublicized aspect of the story, but wait till you read about the 1924 civil trial, which many have no idea even happened. This is a complex tale of disappearing evidence, witness tampering, and all sorts of other shenanigans, and it pretty much worked in containing the damage done by the original scandal.

Carney covers those lesser-known aspects of the reaction to the fix, but he also covers the fix in comprehensive fashion. He even provides a quality analysis of the other books and resources on the subject. He explains his own conclusions quite well, detailing the evidence and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. I like how he repeats and clarifies information without becoming dull. The multiple trials and conflicting stories make for a tangled drama, but Carney's pleasurable account makes as much sense of it all as is possible. Other than some distracting typos, there is nothing I can criticize here. It's an outstanding achievement and a must-read for anyone interested in the Black Sox.

Wicked Curve: The Life and Troubled Times of Grover Cleveland Alexander by John C. Skipper: This is a fine biography of the Hall of Fame pitcher who, with 373 wins, shares the all-time National League record with Christy Mathewson. The chapters that cover the major league years sometimes get a tad rote with the season summaries, but Alexander's story, sadly, is far more than the dominant seasons he piled up.

His story consists of more even than the defining moment of his career, the relief appearance in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series in which, a day after throwing a complete game, he preserved a Cardinals victory by entering in the seventh and striking out Yankee shortstop Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded.

Alexander suffered from alcoholism and epilepsy, and by the end of his life, the baseball legend was a public relations nightmare for the game, drifting around often without a stable residence or source of income. The sad state of affairs is even more of a downer when you consider that many agree--including Alexander's several-times-married wife--that his harrowing service in World War I caused or at least aggravated those conditions and changed him for life.

Skipper does a nice job of sorting out myths from facts and chronicling "Old Pete's" downward spiral. I enjoyed this book, but, man, is it depressing. The pitcher plays in the major league into his 40s, but once he is out of the majors, he is out. He goes from barnstorming to carnivals to no unemployment. Despite the best efforts of people within the game, like Cardinals owner Sam Breadon, he is unable or unwilling to stay put, and learning about what a nuisance he was--that's a harsh but realistic way to put it--is disheartening. Everyone from Commisoner Kenesaw Landis to then-National League president Ford Frick to Branch Rickey becomes frustrated and unable to keep Alexander out of his troubled life, which includes several hospitalizations for falls/muggings in the wake of seizures/benders (the circumstances are usually murky).

I wish Skipper devoted more than a paragraph or so to "The Winning Team," the sanitized biopic starring Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander. The likable movie motivated me to seek out this book, and since Alexander's wife Aimee was around during its production, there might be something worthwhile there. Otherwise, though, Skipper's biography tells all too much about a great ballplayer who could not vanquish his demons. "Wicked Curve" is a compelling but harrowing read for fans of baseball history.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Journey Into DVD: Ghost Town (2008)

Here's the problem Ricky Gervais faces if he's going to be a movie actor: No matter what level of creative involvement he has with the film, whether he's a hired hand or not, we are going to expect it to be as good as "The Extras" and "The Office." We may understand on an intellectual level why this is unfair to everyone concerned, including ourselves, but unless it's something so clearly NOT like those two superior British TV comedies--paging "A Night at the Museum"--we are going to have to fight to lessen those expectations.

So with this in mind, I tell you that Gervais' 2008 film "Ghost Town" is not brilliant comedy at the A+ level of his famous television work. It's "merely" a very good, underappreciated romantic comedy from director/writer David Koepp. The movie has plenty of laughs, a good deal of charm, and Gervais is great in it. Yet it seemed to just float away into nothingness after its theatrical and DVD releases. I wonder if it's because people didn't want to see Gervais in something other than an A+ TV comedy...or maybe not nearly as many people saw "The Office" and "The Extras" as I'd hope. Still, this flick deserved more buzz, more critical praise, more anything that it got, and I urge you to check it out on DVD.

This film takes a huge risk at the beginning in focusing on some unlikable characters: Ricky Gervais being a prick and Greg Kinnear being Greg Kinnear. But eventually, you warm up to them--well, Gervais, anyway--and they change, and you find yourself rooting for them. I always say the most important thing in a romantic comedy is actually desiring the leads to be together, and Gervais and Tea Leoni make an appealing, surprisingly credible combination. Leoni, in fact, is so good you wish she had more to do--particularly verbally, as she does get a few physical bits--and you wish she did more movies, period.

Gervais gets plenty of laughs and does enough of an acting job to create a genuine character here in his misanthropic dentist who communicates with dead people. Kinnear's ghost asks him to help him finish up some business by keeping his widow, Leoni, from remarrying a guy he finds insufferable. Complications ensue. It's not revolutionary like "The Office," but so what? It's a funny movie with Ricky gervais being funny, and it's very good.

Let me also mention that while you can see where it's all going, that isn't always a bad thing when it's well done. Besides, Koepp and his stars create a perfect ending. It's really one of the most evocative final scenes I've watched in some time, a stellar capper on a delightful experience.

The DVD has some featurettes and such. If you're interested in the making of the ghostly special effects, you can learn more about that. The most prominent extra is the feature-length commentary of Koepp and Gervais. It's an amusing one that entertains throughout, but eventually Ricky's self-deprecation becomes exasperating. He also mocks the very idea of doing a commentary track, sometimes while Koepp is trying to explain something about the filmmaking. But fans of Gervais will enjoy this bonus, as they will the whole DVD package. Just don't expect "The Office" or "The Extras," and don't blame me if it's not quite like those, OK?