Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's great not to be in school anymore

I drove past the local elementary school and noticed their sign:


Jumping Jehosaphat! The poor kids were free for mere days before someone put that up in big letters, a stark reminder that you'd better enjoy your summer while it lasts because, to borrow a phrase from the great Walt Kelly, "It ain't nohow permanent."

Well, maybe the other side of the sign had something a little more fun. I kept an eye out on the way back home and read this on the reverse:


That's right, folks. This school can't resist giving homework in the middle of an ostensible "summer fun" message.

Makes me glad I graduated.

Panel Discussion: The World's Fastest Klutz

I think Barry Allen is a fine police scientist and an even finer superhero, but, boy, does he ever look like a tool each time he's trying to get together with Iris:

In these old "Flash" comics (this is from #109), Barry closes almost every single story with some kind of wacky mix-up or misunderstanding that leads to Iris thinking he's a tool. And really, who can blame her? She just has her reasons wrong.

See, we readers know that Barry's not a tool for being the slowest man alive, as she thinks. He's a tool because after beating the Mirror Master, he stumbles on one of the mirrors he left behind and is knocked cold for 30 minutes.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Can a bad theme song ruin a TV show?

I know you're thinking, "Well, sir, you are Cultureshark, and I expect YOU to have all the answers, so how can I possibly be of service to you in answering this query?"

But, no, I'm really asking. The problem for me right now is trying to think of bad TV theme songs. Even if you don't like "Gilligan's Island," you can't deny the appeal of the great title tune. The bad songs I can think of accompany songs so horrible they couldn't be "ruined" by a mere piece of music (I'm thinking "Full House" here).

I do know at least one case of really good show saddled with a terrible theme song, though. I just finished the first disc of Shout Factory's recent season 1 "The Paper Chase" release, and, hoo, boy, does it offer a stinker.

The series itself is quality entertainment, and I look forward to seeing the rest of this and of future seasons. But that Gimbel and Fox (who also brought us the theme from "Happy Days") theme song almost wrecks the whole enterprise. In fact, it might have done just that for me, but fortunately the pilot holds it until the end. Thus, I enjoyed the first episode without having that wretched number clouding my judgment of more important things like the writing, the acting, etc. When it DID come, though, I burst out laughing and actually forgot I had been watching the real "Paper Chase" pilot. The combination of the classic freeze frame and the onset of Seals and Crofts suggested I was watching a parody. I had to double-check to ensure I hadn't somehow put an "SCTV" episode in the player.

The first years are hard years
Much more than you know
With good friends to love us
We'll field every blow

Don't get me wrong, I like a solid dose of sentiment every now and then, and indeed much of the appeal of "The Paper Chase" is in the warmth of the interpersonal relationships and the sincere, heartfelt tone of the series. But these lyrics are laying it on a bit thick.

I'll spare you the second verse because you're not really getting the full effect, anyway, unless you hear the song as performed by Seals and Crofts in its twee glory. If you have a song with sappy lyrics but you want to avoid complete sappiness, I think the last thing you should do is bring in Seals and Crofts to perform it.

The producers of "The Paper Chase" saw this differently.

As I said, avoiding the song till the end of the episode in the pilot gave me a chance to appreciate this comedy-drama as one of the better series of its time. Had I watched one of the other episodes on disc 1 first, who knows? I don't _think_ the theme song would have spoiled the whole series for me, but I'm glad it didn't get the opportunity.

ESPN loves the stars

I was watching a bit of Wimbledon coverage while dining with my wife last week, and, boy, did I feel sorry for whoever was playing with Maria Sharapova. This was the superstar's first round match, not the second round one in which she was upset, so her opponent didn't even get the satisfaction of winning.

See, ESPN's coverage was all-Sharapova all the time. Well, at least all the time that I was watching, and I confess I had to keep my eyes moving across the various big screens in the restaurant so as not to be accused of ogling by Mrs. Shark. Not once did I see who she was playing, except as a tiny figure at the top of the screen. I understand giving the popular Sharapova plenty of camera time and closeups in between points, during her service, et cetera, but even when she was returning serve, the ESPN cameras were fixed on the tall blonde.

I still don't know anything about the other competitor, let alone what she looked like. I doubt that her appearance would turn viewers to stone, but even if it would, she's in a grand slam event and deserves some screen time. I know it's money to follow the stars, but, jeez, ESPN, can't you show the other player every now and then?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The obligatory Michael Jackson post

It's really tempting to make a reactionary post tearing the guy down, especially after seeing so many people come out of the woodwork this weekend and act like it was 1987 again, but I'm not happy to see him go, and it's never a good story when a parent leaves young children behind. But I can't join in the praise for Michael Jackson, either. The Jacko I knew and liked disappeared about 20 years ago.

Where have all these admirers been? Jackson hasn't been musically relevant for years--heck, he hasn't done anything of note in years. I'm sure questions are going to be asked along the lines of, "Why wasn't anyone looking out for him?" But his long-term drug abuse was no secret. Anyone who really cared about his or his kids well-being should have stepped in years ago.

And you know what? I'm sure people did, or at least tried to. But ultimately, Jackson himself bears responsibility for how his life turned out (though he sure seems to have gotten a lousy start thanks to his father). Jackson was a self-aggrandizer who was capable of being a lot colder and more calculating than the Neverland image he--yes, he himself--cultivated.

Even if I could separate the man from the child abuse allegations, there's all the other stuff, like his maneuvering to get the Beatles' catalog from Paul McCartney (I don't know if the true details of that will ever come out, but I'm backing the Beatle) and his ridiculous insistence on being called the King of Pop. Plus the anti-semitism, the tired martyr-like posturing, and the increasingly self-important videos. How can you root for a guy like that?

And even if I could separate the man from the music, well, how much music is there? His output as a recording superstar sure looks a lot smaller when you really look at it. Sure, everyone loved "Thriler" (my wife insists she never did, but I'm skeptical), and "Off the Wall" was a great album, but since then? I won't deny his huge post-"Thriller" success, but I moved on. And how much of "Thriller" and "Off the Wall" was Quincy Jones, anyway?

OK, so this is starting to sound like a big rip job. But I did like Michael Jackson's music, and I think I'll play some this week. But I liked his music in the Jackson 5, and I'll be playing it this week not because it offers the younger, simpler Jacko, but because I like it better.

I bought a Jackson 5 compilation CD a few years ago, finally replacing a 20-some year-old cassette tape, and listening to it made me feel good, but also sad. I was saddened because Michael Jackson sounded so vital on those early records, only to become...well, you know. It amazed me then, and still does, that a 12-year-old could sing a poignant love song like "Never Can Say Goodbye" so well. That song gets me every time, and even knowing what I do about what happened to Jackson, it never sounds less than authentic. That's the other amazing part of it: that Jackson was such an effective vocalist at 12, yet somehow devolved to the point where you couldn't take him seriously even when he sang about childhood.

So, yes, I'm sad about the death of Michael Jackson, but I've been sad about the loss of Michael Jackson for a long time.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Cultureshark remembers Farrah Fawcett...sort of

It may seem petty to complain about rerun selection after a celebrity's death, but, hey, it's kind of what we're about around here. So I ask, is TV Land really paying "tribute" to Farrah Fawcett by rerunning "Chasing Farrah" this weekend? That disaster did Fawcett's image no favors, and, to me, it was the tipping point in the sad decline of the once-great TV Land.

At least the channel is also showing an episode of "Charlie's Angels," and WGN America is stepping up by showing a marathon of the series that remained Fawcett's TV pinnacle. I guess it's too much to ask that someone show a few "Harry O" episodes.

I'm too young to really appreciate the Farrah phenomenon. When NBC showed its Farrah special a few weeks ago, my wife told me she just didn't get her appeal. Fawcett was not my kind of sex symbol--I'd take Lynda Carter as 70s icons go, thank you--but I recognize how big a deal she was at her peak, when everyone apparently had that poster on their wall.

I don't think she's a timeless icon, but a fantasy object of her time. My generation was more about, say, Pamela Anderson. Again, she's not my number one sex symbol. I was more a fan of Debbie Dunning as a Tool Time girl and Carmen Electra as a "Baywatch" Babe. Yet I understand her appeal and I was there to see the impact she had.

I think that's how it is with Farrah Fawcett: You kind of had to be there. I wasn't, but I realize that for a whole bunch of people (mostly men) who were, she was IT. I'm sure they feel this loss big-time, and I feel for 'em.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cultureshark Remembers Ed McMahon

I admired Ed McMahon's "Ho ho ho'ing" as the ultimate sidekick on "The Tonight Show," but even at a young age I was intrigued by his other roles. It's not like Ed was choosy about what he did to pay the bills. The guy started out as a clown, so why would he get haughty about gigs like playing emcee on the godawful "Legends of the Superheroes" roast or taking a pie in the face in a "Masterjoke Theatre" segment on "The Captain and Tennille"?

I hope bloggers out there are covering those roles, as well as his fascinating work as a heel in "Slaughter's Big Rip-Off," but I want to talk a bit about what for me was the epitome of Ed McMahon in the 1980s: TV's Practical Jokes and Bloopers.

OK, I know it wasn't really equivalent to his "Tonight Show" work, but I was young, and when I was up late enough to watch Johnny Carson, I was watching Ralph Kramden instead on WPIX. But I did watch "Bloopers," and as to why, I can only repeat: I was young. It's one of those shows that seemed like it was always on, and on for years, but really wasn't, as opposed to "America's Funniest Videos," which seems like it has always been on and HAS.

The show was the epitome of inane, really, but it did give us one of the 1980s' unheralded comedy teams: Dick Clark and Ed McMahon. For once, Ed was the funnyman to Dick's straight man. Even then I recognized this as a novelty. The formula was simple: The guys would come out on stage and banter a little bit as they introduced a set of miscues, a short film, or one of the fabled practical jokes (that name was more appropriate in the kinder, gentler pre-"Punk'd" era). This banter consisted of Dick setting things up so that Ed could make a joke. All we had to do as viewers was sit back and watch the comedy unfold.

You won't get much argument if you claim McMahon had the best fake laugh in the business, but he left that in the holster on this show, instead delivering the punchlines so that Clark could let go with his own version, a patented wheeze/wince combo that often left him doubled over. Of course, Clark always recovered quickly enough to lead us into the segment when necessary.

It was one of the oddest pairings in eighties TV, a blend of old-school corniness and solid professionalism. It was amusing to see Ed as the irrepressible cut-up, with Dick as the one gently reigning him like a tipsy uncle who was funny at first but liable to embarrass everyone if he was allowed to continue. Ed usually stood with his hands together, not in a "You, sir, are correct," bow, but in a serene "I am master of this stage" pose. Meanwhile, Dick delivered endless variations of, "Oh, will you stop?" or "Aw, come on."

Yes, as a youth, the notion of Ed McMahon as an unpredictable comic who had to be reined in fascinated me. Maybe the show was crap--OK, the show was crap--but it deserves a special place in the history for television for presenting the immortal comedy team of Dick and Ed, a duo that should have done more and maybe could have if the members weren't so darned busy. So let's remember the "Here's Johnny" side of the late Ed McMahon, but let's also remember when he was the go-to laugh getter.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

DVD Status Report: TV shows mentioned on "My Three Sons"

A few weeks ago, I caught an amusing episode of "My Three Sons" entitled "TV or not TV." In this installment, vicious arguments over what television programs to watch tear asunder the Douglas household until Uncle Charley, fearing for the safety of all the Sons, takes the drastic step of banning television for a week.

Or, if you like it with less melodrama, Chip and Ernie bicker a bit and cranky Uncle Charley overreacts by pulling the plug on the boob tube.

There are some great TV programs mentioned in this episode, though, as we find out what shows the family likes. We only see actual footage of a handful, but many are mentioned. I thought it would be interesting to look at the DVD status of these TV shows. How many are available? How many are in limbo? Let's go to the videotape, er, the DVD:

*The Jerry O'Dowd Show (starring Jerry O'Dowd): Uncle Charley's favorite show is an unlikely candidate for a comprehensive release, as the O'Dowd estate continues the legal squabbles that keep the longtime comic's television work in the vaults. Even if the disputes are settled, good luck clearing the musical performances (this is a shame considering legendary singer Tiny Tim made his debut here). A single Best Of DVD from 2003, one of questionable legality, is apparently out of print.

*Blast Off: This is one of the success stories on this list, as Paramount got all 3 seasons of the popular sci-fi show out there, although it took 21 sets to do so. In this episode, we see footage of the infamous "black screen" episode, when the producers saved money by creating a story in which the crew of the "Galaxy Queen" become visible when they enter a time warp after, as Ernie explains it, "losing their heterogeneity." This episode is on Season 2 Volume 6.

*Charge! Steve's colleague Dave Welch watches this late at night in a hotel room on their business trip, wryly remarking that it's amazing the show about the Spanish-American War has been on nearly 6 years since the actual war lasted only a few months. Image recently released Charge! The Complete Series! in a deluxe $400 set shaped like a life-size functioning bayonet.

*Teenage Frenzy: Another music rights nightmare. We'll likely never see official releases of this memorable 1960s dancefest, though bootleg copies are plentiful and popular. In this episode, Chip sneaks a peak of an episode starring "Nero and His Firemen," an installment long feared lost until it was unearthed for a 40th Anniversary tribute. In a perfect world, we'd see uncut, full-length episodes of "Teenage Frenzy," complete with original sponsor tags for Dr. Groovy's Feelgood Orange Soda Pop, but this is no perfect world.

*Poochie: Sony continues to sit on this canine family adventure series, but it's thought that it might be on the radar for an eventual release. The first season is in black and white, though, which may be a hold-up. If the rumored "Poochie" film ever comes to fruition, the long-delayed project which would feature Eddie Murphy as Poochie, chances of a DVD skyrocket.

*Kelly's Kids: We see Chip and Ernie watch a bit of this warm family sitcom about a man raising 3 sons. Several volumes are out from Paramount, but with horrible music replacement and high retail prices, which may be inhibiting sales.

*Son of Warpaint: Chip Douglas' favorite TV show is unfortunately part of the Warner Brothers library, which makes the DVD prospects of this lively Western dim, at least for now.

*Nor All Your Tears: Uncle Charley appears to be a fan of this long-running soap opera, which revolutionized the genre with its landmark "addiction to marmalade" storyline, a saga that lasted 3 years. Soap operas aren't widespread on DVD, but maybe the release of "Peyton Place" means a small company might take a shot and get at least some of the 3,400,000 episodes on video.

*Free Agent: The good news is this ultra-cool spy series is complete on DVD from A&E Video. The bad news is each set retails for $595.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Paul Shaffer has a book coming out

Did you know Paul Shaffer has an autobiography coming out this fall? I found out when I read last week that, according to the "New York Daily News," Shaffer claims in his memoirs that Jerry Seinfeld told him the part of George Costanza was his if he wanted it.

This either indicates there is gonna be a lot of interesting stuff in the book or that Shaffer is capable of spreading it really thick. Wait, those aren't mutually exclusive, are they? Fact is, if--big if here--if Shaffer is gonna tell it like it is, this could be a GREAT book.

He's most famous, of course, for being David Letterman's longtime bandleader, but that's far from his only high-profile gig, as he was a musical director and featured player on "Saturday Night Live" in its early years. Then there's his work in the music biz. His work as bandleader for the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies alone should be worth a ton of good stories.

But is Paul Shaffer gonna tell it like it is, or is he gonna write something more "in character," something along the lines of his on-air sidekick persona? He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who's liable to tear the industry--nay industry apart, but at the very least he can provide insight into many aspects of pop culture at its coolest. I sure hope he shares at least some of the stuff he undoubtedly has seen and heard in his years in show business.

My wife reads "People" so you don't have to #2

I have in my hands the June 15, and after I share this tidbit with you, you may wish that neither my wife nor myself ever looked at this issue...or maybe you'll wish you never clicked on this site.

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you this thrilling excerpt from "Nia Vardolos' Guide to Greece" on page 106. She is a big fan of Paros Beach, as she explains:

"It's beautiful, crystal clear, and bikini tops are optional. "

Then she adds...

"Ice cream is everywhere, too. I have a theory that any ice cream eaten in a bikini is not fattening."

"People" somehow manages to spil Grrece, ice cream, and bikinis in one paragraph. Well done, folks.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Journey Into DVD: Rifftrax 'Swing Parade"

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 have been doing these Rifftrax--downloadable MP3 files that can be synced up to a DVD to serve as a wise-ass commentary track--for a few years. Now Legend Films has released a slew of these on actual DVDs. No downloading required--just pop in the disc and play. So easy even, well, _I_ can do it.

I hadn't heard any of the Rifftrax, but I enjoyed the same guys' work on the (apparently defunct) "Film Crew" DVDs, another variation of the MST3k formula. It wasn't quite as good as the original, but why bitch about it? It was still funny work, and the guys have a right to keep at it. I think the format has plenty of life in it, and even if "Rifftrax," at least judging from this one disc I've seen, doesn't reach the heights of MST3K, either, it's still entertaining.

For my first foray into "Rifftrax," I chose "Swing Parade of 1946," a Monogram picture starring Gale Storm and featuring three gents named Moe, Larry, and Curly in the supporting cast. If you're thinking that this movie doesn't need a wise-ass commentary track kind of treatment, you're absolutely right. I think a movie with that cast, plus a slew of musical performances-- directed by Phil Karlson, no less--deserves its own legit DVD release. But I'm not complaining about this because Legend smartly allows you to watch the movie without the Rifftrax treatment. So everybody's happy here, right?

I wondered how the gang would handle the Stooges, and fear not, fans, they mock the characters for being who they are, but they're never disrespectful, and they mostly laugh at the others around them, for example, the nightclub that employs them. So, really, Stooge fans, don't be upset that the boys are getting a send-up here.

The movie itself is not a groaner like you would think deserves this kind of treatment, though the plot is a bit weak. Storm is an aspiring performer who, desperate for work, unwittingly becomes a de facto process server for a rich father trying to shut down his son's (Phil Regan) club. When she goes to the soon-to-be-opening nightspot, she winds up auditioning, and after some hijinks, the son signs her up for his show, and she forgets all about the delivery she had brought. Love, laughs, and a word for music that starts with "L" (I can't think of one) ensue.

The movie doesn't add up to a whole lot, but there are all sorts of little elements that make it worthwhile regardless of the Rifftrax treatment. Though this was apparently filmed as Curly's health was starting to deteriorate, and it's by no means their film, the Stooges get to do some business here and there, including one of their plumbing bits with pipes going all over the place. Burly character actor Edward Brophy entertains as the Stooges' boss, the guy that actually runs Regan's club. John Eldredge, who I recognized as Corliss Archer's dad but has been in a ton of other stuff, is here as a small "s" stooge for Regan's father. And there are a host of musical performances from Louis Jordan and others--not all memorable, but amusing enough if that's your thing.

So with all this, the bar is pretty low for the Rifftrax guys in creating a worthwhile package. All they have to do is get in and make enough quality jokes to not irritate you, and you still have a decent DVD just on the basis of the original movie, especially if you're a Three Stooges fan. Fortunately, though, the gang goes well beyond that threshold, scoring with enough remarks to make their version an entertaining one as well. I look forward to seeing more of these Rifftrax DVDs, but I doubt other movies will be as compelling without the commentary.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Brooks on Books: 101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out

"101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out" by Josh Pahigian is a fun entry in the sports travel field. I enjoyed it very much as a pleasant, breezy read, but as a purchase or something for your permanent collection, it's kind of a tweener. This hardback is hefty enough to carry a $25.00 cover price but not big enough to be a coffee table book. It's useful enough as a source of ideas for baseball-themed road trips, but not detailed enough to be a comprehensive guide or road map.

The format is simple: 101 entries, in no apparent order, detailing the author's picks for interesting essential destinations for baseball fans. He avoids many obvious choices like, say, Wrigley Field itself, instead recommending the surrounding neighborhood of Wrigleyville.

Each entry offers a couple of pages of text; most offer a picture. Some choices are well known, such as the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York; but others are much more obscure, like Growden Memorial Park in Alaska, home of an annual Midnight Sun game, and the College Baseball Hall of Fame in Lubbock, Texas, which as of the book's writing was an exhibit at a library building on the Texas Tech campus. There are shrines and museums devoted to individual players like Bob Feller as well as some infamous locations like the Balco Labs site and the Alcor building where the frozen remains of Ted Williams are in storage.

There's a nice variety of places covered, ranging from ballparks to tombstones to restaurants, and any baseball fan with the coin and inclination to travel to these kinds of places ought to get at least one good road trip idea. Even the reader who is likely to stay in put will get some enjoyment out of the book. It's attractively designed, and Pahigian's text is engaging and enthusiastic. If nothing else, reading about these destinations will instill or rekindle an interest in the lore and the mythology of the game.

Is it worth 25 bucks? I'm not so sure about that. More pictures would make this a much more valuable package. I don't understand why a few entries have no pictures at all, and the image selection for those that do can be odd. For example, the entry on the St. Louis Walk of Fame doesn't show us the actual Walk, but presents a shot of Chuck Berry, Bob Costas, and Ozzie Smith at an induction ceremony. It's a nice pic, but I'd rather see what the text describes.

The format of the book gives the author little chance at depth, but he does a good job of summarizing the appeal of a particular place and putting it in context of the sport. Relevant info like hours of operation and admission fees are always included, and Pahigian tries to point out surrounding sites of interest and tips. But there is little geographical info or any advice on lodgings, traffic, and logistics like that. It's beyond the scope of the book and perhaps considered nonessential in this Google Maps age, but the lack of that material makes this more of a starter point than a solid travel guide. That's fine as far as it goes, but for 25 bucks...

If you can get it at a discount, I'd recommend this to any baseball fan, and it would make a nice gift, too. It's not a definitive resource, nor is it as detailed as it could be, but it is a charming survey of a host of cool baseball-related sites.

Friday, June 19, 2009

F(UN)-Facts about Arsenic and Old Lace

*Like many classic Hollywood films of its era, the film was adapted from a stage production, in this case a play written for a P.S. 131 Show For Our Parents Night in New York.

*The original title of the play was "Icky Stuff and Gross Perfume That Aunt Agnes Wears."

*The ladies that play Cary Grant's aunts, despite their delightful light comic performances, took their roles so seriously that in order to get into character, they poisoned 8 people in the two weeks before shooting began.

*Frank Capra's original ending for the film was a 3-minute cameo from Gary Cooper, who looked directly into the camera and delivered a speech on apple pie, motherhood, and patriotism in front of a giant rustling American flag.

*Mortimer Brewster's cousin "Teddy," who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt, was called "Jerry" in an early draft of the screenplay and believed he was Gerald Ford. The character was modified when an unknown executive reminded everyone Ford wouldn't become President for another 30 years.

*Raymond Massey, who plays the deranged Boris Karloff lookalike in the film, took his role in good humor, but at a cocktail party, he once punched out a man who told him he resembled Margaret Hamilton.

*Karloff himself was supposed to play Massey's part, one he created and was concurrently performing in on stage, but he declined by saying, "Compared to THEATER, films are CRAP." But he said it in a really gentlemanly way with his classy accent, so nobody minded.

*If you look closely about 50 minutes into the film, you can see a cardboard standee of Ted Danson near a windowsill.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What to see, what to see?

Next week, to commemorate a special occasion, Mrs. Shark and I may venture out for a rare night on the town (more likely a day on the town), and partake in an even rarer visit to a local nickelodeon, or whatever they now call the bijou where they show those moving pictures.

I haven't been to an honest-to-goodness movie theater since the birth of my wonderful daughter, and I've even avoided the temptation to patronize some of those dishonest movie theaters in the red light district 10 miles from Cultureshark Tower. So I don't take this decision lightly: What should I go see?

Transformers 2 won't be out till after we go, but since I haven't gotten around to seeing the first one yet, despite having multiple opportunities to do so, I doubt that I will run out to watch the sequel, even if it's the "Godfather II" of blockbuster toy adaptations.

Star Trek is a possibility if it's still around, but the initial buzz seems to have faded, and I don't feel a NEED to see this one now. Plus I'm not sure it'll still be playing with all the screens devoted to the other crap out right now.

And speaking of crap out right now...

I don't want to even discuss Angels and Demons because my wife might actually want to go see it. Land of the Lost? No way. I have no interest in Terminator: Salvation. The last movie and the TV series took care of that.

The Hangover might be amusing, but if you only see one movie this summer, should this be it? Is it THAT funny? I don't think Mrs. Shark would love that one, either.

Imagine That? Snicker. Night at the Museum 2? Didn't care for the first. I'd rather go to the actual Smithsonian, and I'm not being glib; I really would. Come to think of it, that's looking like a great option.

Drag Me to Hell? Nah. Taking of Pelham 123? I saw the original, and I can't get pumped for a remake, even one with an interesting cast. The upcoming Year One could be a riot or a disaster, and I don't think I want to gamble upwards of 20 bucks next week to find out which label is more apt.

The more I consider this, the more one movie stands out as the logical choice: Up.

I have seen every major Pixar release in a movie theater, except for last year's "Wall-E," and I never felt like I didn't get my money's worth. Well, I saw a few of them for free, but I would have paid for them if I had to. Even the weakest of the bunch, "Cars," was an enjoyable experience--one that the wife and I saw on a matinee on my birthday, come to think.

So while I didn't think much of "Up" when I saw the previews, Pixar's track record (to say nothing of the critical acclaim it has garnered) is enough to make that my number one contender.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Major League Baseball got THIS one right

It's fashionable (and usually proper) to bash Bud Selig and his cronies that run Major League Baseball for the myriad of bad decisions they've made over the last--well, it's been a long time. But every now and then, they get something right. Case in point: MLB Network, one of the best start-up cable channels ever.

First, MLB did some wheeling and dealing, offering up a stake in the channel to cable operators and other entities, and achieved carriage on most of the country's systems (Hey, I'm not Wikipedia, so I don't know the exact number, but it's HIGH). So unlike the NFL, which has been warring with cable companies since its inception, MLB has this showcase for its product widely available to interested parties (and non-interested as well; this network is on one of my own basic tiers that doesn't require an extra fee). There are plenty of hardcore NHL and NBA fans unable to see those leagues' networks at any price.

More importantly, the programming is excellent. MLB Network does a great job of offering highlights and coverage of the entire majors. In addition to achieving that stated goal, the channel is also celebrating the sport's rich history with a variety of cool offerings.

On Monday, "Inside Studio 42 with Bob Costas" featured Costas chatting with Tim McCarver and Bob Gibson. The entertaining discussion, which also showcased vintage clips, was casual but reverent, and speaking of "reverent," if you think McCarver worships the Yankees, you should see his deference to Gibson. But who can blame him? Gibson is one of the all-time greats, and it's nice to see him still looking good and talking in an engaging manner about his career. For the record, McCarver draws a lot of ire for his Fox work, but I enjoyed his work on Mets games in the eighties and always thought he came across like a decent guy. This was a delightful hour, and I look forward to Costas' next episode next week.

Better yet, MLB Network followed "Studio 42" with a complete broadcast of Game 1 of the 1968 World Series. Gibson against Denny McClain with Curt Gowdy and Harry Caray in the booth, plus a young(er) Tony Kubek interviewing luminaries like Frank Sinatra and Casey Stengel--what a great package for a fan with a love of baseball history.

I love that MLB Network is not afraid to devote programming hours (admittedly, it has a lot to fill) to vintage stuff. Nights like Monday indicate that the channel is in many ways what ESPN Classic should be but certainly isn't now and never really was. The fact that MLB can do this while maintaining its focus on covering baseball now is proof that this remarkable channel is--forgive me, but at least i waited till the end--knocking it out of the park already.

What's so special about YOU, Franklin?

My daughter and I have watched a few episodes of "Franklin," a cartoon that Nickelodeon airs early weekday mornings. The title character is a turtle who lives with his loving parents and caring friends in a wonderful critter community. This charming show offers gentle humor and solid moral lessons.

And it's driving me crazy.

Here's the beef I have with "Franklin," and it has nothing to do with a cow, as that's one of the few animals I've yet to see on the show. If there were a cow, though, it would surely be known only as "Cow." Yep, "Cow," not Clarabelle, not Bessie, not even Cowabunga C. Cowher. Just Cow.

I know this because every single animal on the show is known as Beaver, Bear, or what have you. Oh, no, wait, there is one little guy that gets a proper moniker: Franklin.

Yep, the titular turtle is good enough to get an actual name, but not any of his friends. Leaving aside the fact that simple tasks like mail delivery must be complicated as hell in the Franklinverse...

"Excuse me, Stork, this letter is for Duck. I'm Duck."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Duck. I'll take it back and give it to Duck. Here's today's mail."
"Oh, thank y--ah, sorry, Stork, this magazine is actually for Duck."
"My apologies."
"No problem. Hey, who was that delivering the mail on Friday?"
"Oh, that was my substitute--Stork."
"Oh, OK. Thanks, Stork."
"Bye, Duck. I mean, Duck."

...it just doesn't seem right that Franklin pulls a star trip and gets a name--a name plastered all over the show and in the title, mind you--while his colleagues settle for anonymous generic status.

I ask, then, Franklin, what makes YOU so special?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Wonderful World of TCM: Lightning Round!

As part of my recent "Clean Up the DVR" drive, I watched a lot of Turner Classic Movies offerings from the past 6 months or so. Here are my brief impressions:

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957): Just once I'd like to see a monster CHALLENGE everyone to a game of Scrabble or maybe 20 Questions. It might add some variety to the genre. In this one, the icky sea monsters play it straight by surfacing and wreaking havoc, Hans Conried plays it straight (unfortunately) as a scientist, and Tim Holt--well, nobody plays it straighter than Tim Holt, here a military guy who finds time for a bland romance. I didn't get into this, but I can see how someone who grew up with it, or someone in more of a mood for it, would. Plus the letterboxed print TCM has is fantastic.

The Twonky (1953): In this Arch Oboler film, Conried is a professor who is beleaguered by a new television set. That's right, the television set itself does all sorts of wacky things inside the house, taking over the prof's life and wreaking even more havoc than your typical icky sea monster. Oh, but it's not as if the TV just springs to life, you see. No, that would just be ridiculous. Instead, as Conreid's gym teacher/coach colleague determines, a sentient alien being from the future has possessed and animated the appliance. At least, I think that's what he says. Coach dabbles in astrometaphysics, apparently.

You have to see this one just for the crazy premise, but I am sorry to report that it never becomes as entertaining as you want it to be. The print of THIS one looked like a television set stomped all over it, chewed it up, spit it out, stomped over it again, and then leased it to run on hundreds of local stations.

Blind Alley (1939): Ralph Bellamy is a shrink who is held hostage by a criminal gang led by Chester Morris in this compelling little psychological thriller. I'm not used to seeing Bellamy use his wits in these old movies, so this is a nice change of pace, as he explores the dark past that makes Morris so darned criminal. Speaking of "The Dark Past," "Blind Alley" was remade with Bill Holden and Lee J. Cobb, with inferior results. I think the original is sharper and faster-paced, with some effective work in the supporting cast by Ann Dvorak and frequent movie tough guy Marc Lawrence, and it's a fun movie that plays as far less pretentious than some of its psychological mumbo jumbo might indicate. There's some cool dream-sequence stuff that looks pretty wild for a 1939 movie. This isn't one of the pics you hear celebrated as part of that "magical movie year," but it's a worthwhile complement to some of the bigger pictures of '39.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Panel Discussion: Flash's Apartment

I love this panel from Flash #107 (1959).

The concept of Flash maintaining a swinging bachelor pad as the Flash is just too cool. It's not just an efficiency apartment with spartan decoration, either, judging from this shot. My man Flash actually has tricked out the place somewhat! This is clearly a great place the Scarlet Speedster can use to, uh, "meet with people" and not let on he's Barry Allen.

I like to imagine that somewhere in the place is an end table or a counter that has all sorts of junk mail piled up. Do you think Flash has a bunch of Publishers Clearing House envelopes lying around?

Does he pay cash each month for the joint, or does he drop a check off in the rent box? Maybe there's a crusty landlord that exchanges a gruff "Humph," each time he sees Flash in the halls. I hope Flash tries to at least be social. Does he bring a covered dish to the monthly tenants' barbecue? Does he participate in the apartment's renters' association?

All in all, I have to think he'd be a great neighbor to have over for pizza and a cold one on a football Sunday...as long as he didn't continually avoid returning the favor with the old "Got to go fight crime" routine.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

First Impulse: ABC's Fall 2009 Schedule

Continuing my series of initial takes on the networks' announced fall lineups, I'm looking at ABC today.

We'll start with Monday because isn't that the best way to kick off the week, with "Monday Night Football?" Only thing is, that's on ESPN now and has been for a few years, so there's really no reason to watch the Alphabet Network on Mondays. Two hours of "Dancing with the Stars" certainly isn't, and though I have heard good things about "Castle," which follows it at 10:00, I haven't seen them, so I'll stick to complaining about how bad "Heroes" is and piling up episodes of "Chuck" on my DVR that I won't get around to watching.

Tuesdays it's "Dancing with the Stars" again because, after all, you gotta have a results show. Preceding it at 8:00 is a new reality show from Mark Burnett called"Shark Tank." That's all I need, a reality show that makes us sharks look like idiots. At 10:00 is a crime drama called "The Forgotten," which is of course just begging smart-assed TV critics to comment.

ABC will do something interesting Wednesday. Lately it has been sprinkling its comedies throughout the schedule to fill gaps, like, "Hey, we need something before 'Lost,' here's 'Miss Guided'" or whatever, but this fall it presents a night of all-new sitcoms. "Hank" sounds the most promising, simply because it stars Kelsey Grammer, while "Cougar Town" sounds the least promising, simply because it's called "Cougar Town."

After the 4 new sitcoms, it's "Eastwick," a show with a supernatural premise that might sound sort of different if it weren't already a novel and a Jack Nicholson movie decades ago. Rebecca Romijn is the top witch. And, John Stamos, I said WITCH, W-I-T-C-H, witch. This show doesn't sound worthwhile, but I really like what ABC is doing with the 4 new sitcoms from 8-10. Maybe 1 or 2 will actually stick.

Thursdays begin with David Goyer's "Flash Forward," a high-concept show that could be cool or terrible. Either way, it's off of ABC at 9:00 because it's time for "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice." At least, the TV would be off of ABC in my house, but my wife likes those shows, and, well, she's welcome to them.

Fridays are "Supernanny," "20/20," and between them "Ugly Betty," and you can tell how solid "Betty's" renewal is by its placement here. It goes into the fall in the "just happy to be here"category. Wake me up when Salma Hayek does a guest shot.

Saturdays are college football nights, and if I'm not mistaken, the Big Ten made a stupid decision to end Saturday night conference games this season. Did I hallucinate this, or is it one more sign of how behind the times that league is? Either way. Go PSU!

On Sundays, I will still watch "Desperate Housewives"--yes, I'm man enough to admit it--but the other retreads aren't on my radar. I have no use for "Brothers and Sisters," but I can't help but marvel at the staying power of "America's Funniest Home Videos." Every year, I forget it's on. Thank goodness for pro football. As for "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," is the qualifier even necessary anymore? When was the last time ABC showed the surgery stuff?

Friday, June 12, 2009

My wife reads "People" so you don't have to #1

My lovely wife gets "People" magazine, and while I don't read it (not that there's anything wrong with that), every now and then, Mrs. Shark will leave a copy around and I just happen to see a page or two.

In the June 1 issue (I'd mention that Jon and Kate are on the cover, but that wouldn't narrow it down), there is a page of "Singing Celeb Offspring," pairing famous people with their singing spawn. There is a pic of each and a little blurb.

At the bottom--"People" knows the value of saving the best for last, no doubt--is this combo:
Zack Zmed, 26. Son of: Adrian Zmed.

First of all, Adrian Zmed has a 26-year-old son??? Yes, I could just have easily titled this post, "Things that make you feel old #1."

Second, how about that name? I love that Adrian Zmed named his boy "Zack." Double Z, Zack Zmed--very rock and roll.

Finally, I might seek out Zack's music. "People" says, "He's the lead singer for the Janks, who release their self-titled EP of melodic, retro-flavored rock on June 1." There's just something...interesting about Adrian Zmed's son being a rock star. I can't explain why.

So there you have it: one of the fascinating tidbits you can only find in "People"...and here, maybe. Rock on, Zack Zmed!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

This Week in DVD

Welcome to another installment of "This Week in DVD," the longest-running DVD column on...this blog. It comes to you this week from my sickbed, or at least my sickchair.

Gran Torino: This movie was derisively referred to by some as a showcase for "Clint Eastwood lelling the kids to get off his lawn. Uh, and what would be wrong with that, exactly?" I'll watch Clint Eastwood yell at kids to get off his lawn, I'll watch him confront an elderly woman in a bingo dispute, I'll watch him race to get to the Super Buffet by 4pm so he makes the Early Bird Special.

The International: This looks like exactly the kind of grown-up action thriller that audiences should be supporting because they are dwindling in number. I didn't see it. I had other stuff to do. But YOU should have gone and seen it.

Jack Lemmon Collection: A bunch of movies with Jack Lemmon.

OK, not the best insight I've ever contributed, but I've been sick this week.

Woodstock Director's Cut: I don't know about you hippies, but I'm all Woodstocked out at this point. Between all the anniversaries and revivals and reruns of the film on cable, I...still haven't seen the whole thing. But I don't feel I need to do so. Someone should make a documentary interviewing all the people who claim they were at the original festival. It might almost be as long as the concert movie.

Father Knows Best Season 3: Don't tell anyone. but I haven't seen season 2 yet. However, I was suprised by how much I enjoyed season 1, and Shout did an even better job with the follow-up, offering unedited episodes. If season 3 continues in that same vein, this should be another winner.

Perry Mason Season 4 Volume 1: Paramount set the MSRP for this half-season of 16 episodes at 49.99, meaning even Amzon's discounted price is 35 bucks. Rationalize it all you want, and I don't blame you if you buy this, but I'm just saying.

Norman Lear Collection: Been there, done that, complained about it, bought the t-shirt, found out the t-shirt had already been released 5 years ago.

Zane Grey Theatre Season 1: I have never seen an episode of this Western anthology, meaning there is a huge gap in my Dick Powell viewing experience. Kudos to VCI for bringing this one to DVD. I could tell you this acclaimed series is chock full of guest stars and solid writing, but really all you need to know is: hosted by (and sometimes starring) DICK POWELL.

The Shield Season 7: SPOILER ALERT: Mackey acts like an a-hole.

Cultureshark Cares: A Public Service Announcement

We at Cultureshark--well, I at Cultureshark--want to assure nervous readers that Cultureshark will be unaffected by the upcoming transition to digital TV.

Fear not, folks. You will still be able to receive Cultureshark via the Internet, satellite dish, over-the-air antennae, carrier pigeon, top-secret decoder ring, and magical incantation.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why does every cable channel feel the need to show movies?

How many cable channels have you seen screw things up by adding frequent screenings of movies, usually chopped-up, overplayed movies, at that? Yes, it's usually the beginning of the end for a decent channel when it resorts to films to fill out its schedule. In recent years, we saw this happen to VH-1, Vh-1 Classic, TV Land....hey, you know what? All these are part of the same corporate family, so no surprise here.

I'm not what you'd call a regular viewer of Gospel Music Channel; heck, I'm not even what you'd call an ever-watcher. But its location in my FIOS lineup means I often stumble upon its listings while checking out another channel. So I recently noticed that now GMC is showing, yes, MOVIES.

I don't think I need to belabor the obvious by stating this simple equation, but state it I shall:


Pretty simple, eh? There's no doubt that this channel is heading down the path of no return. It would be one thing is the movies featured gospel music, or even gospel-related themes.

A biblical film every now and then seems appropriate as a break from gospel music. But what are the religious themes in "My Giant" or "The Next Karate Kid?"

(Seriously, I'll entertain legitimate answers on this because I've never seen either of those movies.)

Amazingly, GMC is not and never has been part of the Viacom/CBS Networks family, but it seems to have taken some lessons from the master.

Perhaps I'm overreacting. Perhaps the goal for GMC is simply to provide a dash of variety to its schedule with family-friendly films. But we've seen all too often what happens when a cable channel betrays its purpose by adding crappy movies, or movies, period. Soon the obnoxious reality shows follow, commercials are added, and what brought viewers to the channel in the first place disappears.

Maybe you don't watch GMC and think, "Hey, this doesn't affect me." Oh, but just wait until it happens to a channel that YOU watch.

Well, actually, it likely already has.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Should You Watch: The Goode Family

This is why I haven't done one of these posts in a while: Each time I sample a new show and think I might write about it, it gets canceled, or all but canceled, before I finish. "The Goode Family," Mike Judge's new ABC animated sitcom, has been exiled to Friday nights as punishment for its poor ratings, but though it may now be moot, I will attempt to answer the question, "Should you watch The Goode Family"?

I know I'm watching it, even if it's playing out the string right now. I like the Mike Judge style, and while this comedy isn't his best work, it's goode enough if not greate. The show is about an ultraliberal couple finding all sorts of obstacles as it tries to live the politically correct life as a family.

You should watch this show if:

*You'll give Mike Judge at least a shot on any of his projects (this should include most of you).
*You really miss David Van Driessen from "Beavis and Butt-head." See, Judge's voice for main character Gerald Goode is an awful lot like that of Mr. V.D., and their behavior and attitudes aren't that dissimilar, either. This is a good thing, as that was one of the great cartoon characters of all time.
*You believe that deep down, liberals are, if not outright hypocrites, naive types who don't understand how impractical their ideas are in the real world. I don't agree with that, but the show does mock extreme liberal ideas more than extreme conservative ones. You could argue whether or not the show is mocking or not of the Goode's basic world views.
*Hey, there's another reason to watch: You enjoy arguing whether or not sitcoms or conservative or liberal in their ideology.
*You resent the idea of Fox having a prime time animation monopoly.
*You have been hungering for a return to weekly TV of Brian Doyle Murray, who is outstanding as Helen Goode's crude, unsupportive father.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

This Week in DVD

I'm doing something a little different this week with this rather late installment of "This Week in DVD." I'll highlight a batch of notable new releases, as per usual, but I'll also share the lessons we can take from these releases. Let's see how it goes.

Revolutionary Road: Kate Winslet and Leo are really frustrated in 1950s suburbia because they're, like, really bored and stuff and tired of conforming, man.
Lesson learned: Hollywood loathes the 1950s and is gonna keep on making movies that let us know that.

Defiance: Daniel Craig, eager to avoid being pigeonholed as Bond, James Bond, stars in Ed Zwick's fact-based saga of Jewish brothers who join resistance fighters in the struggle against the Nazis. Of course, this movie earned a lot of "James Bond Vs. the Nazis" headlines when it came out.
Lesson learned: Once a Bond, always aBond--unless you're Barry Nelson or George Lazenby.*

Cannon Season 2, Volume 1: Would you believe that Paramount is justifying its split-season approach with this series by saying, "Frank Cannon is at least twice the detective an average-sized man is, so it's like you're getting a whole season"? Well, you shouldn't. I made it up. But at least it would be a more creative reason than, "We want to soak you for all we can get," or the corollary, "Wal-Mart won't carry it unless we make it a little smaller and jack up the per-disc MSRP."
Lesson learned: Don't believe everything you read. Also, split seasons still bite.

The Jetsons Season 2 Volume 1: These so-called "second season" episodes were produced in the 1980s, decades after the original (i.e., "real") series. Hey, it's 2009. I guess the third season should be popping up on Cartoon Network any day now.
Lesson learned: Marketing is a funny thing. Spacely Sprockets has nothing on the creative minds at Hanna Barbera and Warners.

Quincy Season 3: After a long layoff, Universal brings us another season of America's favorite TV doctor*. I don't know why it's taking so long to get this series out, but I suspect...murder!
Lesson learned: Don't EVER give up on Quincy!

Weeds Season 4: I don't watch this show, but Mary Louise Parker sure looks like a million grams on the DVD box cover.
Lesson learned: Sex sells, or at least gets you to take notice.

Abbott Costello the Complete Series: I never got around to getting the season sets, and when I saw this listing at Amazon, I figured, hey, a chance to get the whole bundle and save a few bucks. Now, though, the item is unavailable, and I can't find any other info about this alleged release. Anyone know what's going on here?
Lesson learned: Passport Video isn't exactly the most with-it DVD company out there. Also, get the shows you want when you can.

*For the record, I think "On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of the best Bond flicks.

**In this instance, "America" consists only of myself.

Friday, June 5, 2009

RTN adds new shows...maybe

It's always difficult to get solid info about Retro Television network programming. My FIOS listings are either vague about specific episode info or just plain wrong (continuing to list "Mike Hammer" on Sundays when the local affiliate is running some kind of local indoor football), and good luck getting worthwhile news on the company's own website.

So it's nice to have Sitcoms Online around to post their press releases. Yesterday, Pavan Badal reported that RTN has acquired rights to 7 news shows, all from independent producers (and rights holders), to supplement its Universal offerings.

Those shows, in increasing order of my interest are:

*Black Beauty: Doesn't interest me because, well, it's "Black Beauty."

*I Spy: Available on DVD, currently running several times a day on Family Net. I have tried several times without success to like this one. Maybe I'll give it another go-round.

*The Cisco Kid: I've never seen this show despite a recommendation from my dad, who picked up a budget compliation set a while back. I seem to remember those episodes were edited, though I could be confusing this show with another. I'll give this one a shot.

*The Rifleman: I love this show, and I think it's great that RTN will give it some exposure. Personally, though, I'd rather see something rarer because I was fortunate enough to see many of the episodes on Encore Westerns recently.

*Daniel Boone and Adventures of Robin Hood: I think these are cool acquisitions even though they are on DVD as well. These are the kinds of shows that just don't get much airplay anymore, TV Land's "Boone" marathon (kind of the exception that proves the rule with that network) of a few years ago notwithstanding.

*Peter Gunn: Ah! THIS is the crown jewel for me, a show I long have wanted to sample but never got around to seeing. I am pumped up and ready to go for this one. I've all but got the popcorn and iced tea for this one...

...which probably means MY RTN channel won't get it. Since local affiliates can choose their own shows, there's no guarantee a given one will get all of these, or any of them, for that matter. I sure hope I can see "Peter Gunn," though.

Of course, there's another half of this equation, one not addressed in the Sitcoms Online story. Will RTN be dumping shows? Since there is no announcment about an expansion of the schedule to eliminate infomercials that clog the overnights, I assume that new additions will replace some of the Universal shows, and I fear they won't be the ones I'd like to see go (I'll avoid singling out any so as not to offend their fans).

I've been busy and trying to catch up on the ol' DVR, so lately I've been taking RTN for granted and not watching a lot of it. Plus they seemed to be recycling a lot of seasons of shows like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and not moving on in the series runs. By Jove, though, RTN had better not mess with "Quincy."

In fact, apart from "Peter Gunn," I'd kind of rather my RTN channel leave these new shows aside and pick up some of the Universal ones it hasn't yet aired--stuff like "Jack Benny" and "Kojak." Still, it's nice to see RTN expand its programming. Next I'd like to see it strike a deal with another major studio. Fox would be nice--and not just the MTM and Irwin Allen shows, either, but something like "Room 222" or "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Vault of Coolness: Ernest Borgnine

According to this 1964 TV preview magazine, Ernest Borgnine didn't "just" lose his voice from whooping it up so much. Read the morbid text that sits atop that pic of Borgnine and Tim Conway on the right:
Whoa! That's kind of heavy. Van Johnson just passed away not too long ago, but of course Ernest Borgnine is still here 45 years later, and I think that's pretty cool.

The Pirates are really ahead of the game this year

Hey, this really IS a turnaround year for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Usually, they wait till the trading deadline to ship off their best players.

Nate McLouth is no Hall of Famer, and I like the idea of the franchise getting value for players at their peak (or perceived peak), but it's tough being a fan of this team sometimes. By "sometimes," I mean the last 16 years or so.

If any of the 3 prospects the Braves sent turns out to be a big contributor, this could be a great trade. But it's tough to take the long-range view right now. Pirate fans have been looking ahead for a looong time.

So...how 'bout them Steelers?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

First Impulse: Fox Fall Schedule 2009

Remember when Fox, some buzzy and smart shows notwithstanding, was the clear-cut fourth network in a 4-network field? Well, they never did add national news or 10:00 programs or some of the other staples of the Big Three, but what they did do was keep chasing young viewers with edgy programming. Somehow, they got some big hits that appealed to everyone, and now we have to admit, yeah, they're a real network, and often the biggest by some measures.

Here are my early, uneducated, uninformed reactions to the announced fall schedule for Rupert Murdoch TV:

Monday offers the 1-2 combo of Brits playing Americans with "House" and "Lie to Me." I never did get around to watching the latter; it just looked like something I had seen before. Similarly, from what I understand, "House" has been giving its viewers something they've seen before--already on "House." Not much here to excite me. In fact, I'm gonna spoil the rest of this post right now and tell you Fox as a whole will do nothing for me till "24" returns on Mondays in January.

On Tuesdays, it's "So You Think You Can Dance," which returns the next night with a results show. I like this show much better than "American Idol," if only because I'm not bombarded with its hype every week it's on the air. New show "Glee" follows it on Wednesdays. This one looks so different than anything else on TV right now that...it's bound to fail. Fox sure as hell wants to prevent that from happening, though, continuing to plug it every 15 minutes or so. It's a long way till the fall.

Thursday is the "Bones"/"Fringe" combination, also known as "The Night of Shows People I Know Watch But I Don't." Hmm, rather unwieldy name, at that. Fox really ought to promote its Thursdays better.

On Friday, it's a new Michael Strahan comedy, "Brothers." Strahan, of course, comes from that great breeding ground known as the New York Giants. He spent last year working on Fox's NFL pregame show, which only thinks it's a comedy.

At 8:30, good gravy, it's the return of 'Til Death, the most ironically named show on TV. Thing...just...will...not...go!

"Dollhouse" is back Fridays at 9:00. Oh, great, another season of Joss Whedon nuts bitching about how Fox is killing the show by putting it there.

Saturdays is a doubleheader of "Cops" at 8:00. Want to take bets on whether "Cops" will outlast "'Til Death"? Then it's "America's Most Wanted," and I could make a similar comment, but this is as close to a public service as we get in prime time these days, and I'm not gonna complain about it.

It's animation once again on Sundays, with "The Simpsons" hanging on for its umpteenth season, and though I bailed years ago, the first (insert your own number here) seasons were so excellent, I can never make fun of this show. Now, the Seth MacFarlane shows, on the other hand...

There used to be no point in planning to watch anything on FOX Sunday nights because football would always spill over and disrupt the evening, but now that the network schedules its postgame show in the 7:00-8:00 hour, well, it has no excuse. It kind of has to really try, and in this case, "try" means, "give the keys to MacFarlane."

And that, ladies and gents, is Fox. Looks like I'll be watching zero hours of this network till January, but--and don't ask me how--I think that'll still be more than I watch NBC.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Merrily We Go to Hell"

In some ways, Merrily We Go to Hell" isn't as wild as "The Cheat," its partner on disc 1 of the Universal Pre-Code Hollywood set, and how could it possibly live up to its fantastic title? Merrily we go to hell! What a great phrase.

I can see that title being used today, only instead of a portrait of a marriage suffering from the husband's destructive alcoholism, it would be a zombie movie from some wise-ass 25-year-old film school grad. "We take 'Row, row, your boat," and update it...with ZOMBIES!"

This one is much less violent, with the damage being done to people's feelings...and of course Frederic March's liver. The social ill examined in "Merrily" is alcoholism, which causes March to two-time his wife, played by Sylvia Sidney, and behave in an irresponsible manner including but not limited to public drunkenness on the opening night of his play. At least, the booze is the excuse March gives. Watching the movie play out, I sure get the sense the character is kind of a spineless jerk no matter what, and--not to diminish the nature of addiction in general or this particular condition in particular--he's only too happy to have an excuse to be a simp.

"Merrily we go to hell," is the toast March uses in the film, and unfortunately there aren't as many laughs here as that crazy title suggests. It's quite serious, in fact, though the modern viewer might enjoy counting the number of times March calls Sidney "swell." I'd like to think that back in the early thirties, "swell" was considered a reasonable word in moderation, but thought to cause "excitability" in excess. Maybe when the Code went into effect, someone had to tally the number of "swells" in a given screenplay and haggle with the studio over how many they could use. "We'll let you keep 8 swells, but you have to lose the 'in blazes.'"

March is a newspaperman who wants to be a playwright because, really don't they all? Of course, nowadays a newspaperman will take whatever he can get, but back then, the old maxim was in effect: "Playwrights get all the chicks." Oddly enough, this maxim first appeared IN "Maxim" magazine--the notorious October 1872 issue with Victoria Woodhull on the cover in a skirt that went up to her shins.

I saw March a while back in "There Goes My Heart," and though he was a newspaperman in that one as well, I never bought into his...jauntiness. Here, though, he's outstanding, pulling off the lighter tone of the earlier scenes but also the darkness of the later stages of the story, providing a standout performance and bringing some likability to a frustrating character.

The real star of this show for me, however, is Sylvia Sidney. She's radiant and charming but always credible as the grounded half of her pairing with March. When she exhibits some Pre-Codish behavior by threatening to give March a taste of his own medicine (that's not an alcohol reference--she wants to step out with another guy to get back at her wayward spouse), she displays enough snap for HIS benefit, but shows us enough of the hurt that causes her to do this. She has several great reaction shots that display her pain as she watches Frederic March go down the wrong path. It's a wonderful acting job in which she holds the audience's attention even while there's a showy drunk on the screen. She's amazing to watch here, and let me tell you, as someone who grew up knowing her as Mrs. Carlson on "WKRP," it's sometimes hard to acknowledge her talent in these early roles.

"Merrily We Go to Hell" is a fine movie, full of interesting performances and compelling melodrama. If I had to pick, I'd say it's a "better" movie than its mate on Disc 1 of the Universal Pre-Code set, "The Cheat," though that film is perhaps more entertaining. Both attractions on this double feature are worthwhile, though, and I'm eager to see the other 4 flicks in this impressive collection.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Cultureshark goes NAUGHTY (or at least explores Universal's Pre-Code Hollywood collection)

Sometimes I think the term "pre-code" is a little more hype than substance, a gimmick to lure Dumers with suggestions of naughty filmmaking. It's kind of like how companies use the term "noir" rather loosely to apply a nice marketing tag to some of their old flicks. You know what, though? I don't care. It's great to see the Hollywood films of the early 1930s get any kind of release, especially when they're as rarely seen as the ones Universal just put together in its 6-film Pre Code Hollywood box set.

I rented disc 1, a double feature of "The Cheat" and "Merrily We Go to Hell." Oh, there was immoral behavior, even some illicit activity. But let's keep our expectations at a normal level here. Netflix did NOT forgo its standard red envelope in favor of a plain brown wrapper. These are basically two entertaining old flicks, each providing a fascinating window into early Hollywood's view of naughty social life in the (mostly) upper classes.

You see lots of talk of scandal and lots of fretting over moral transgressions, but ultimately what "dates" the pictures (mind you, I wouldn't use that term in a negative sense, as they're quite entertaining today) is not the behavior depicted, but rather the way people react to it. The gambling, adultery, and drinking isn't so unusual, but the shame is. We still have "sinful behavior" today, of course, and we see it all the time in the movies. What's harder to buy in modern society is the notion that people would be so embarrassed by it or try so hard to cover it up. In these pre-code films, a constant threat is someone blabbing to someone's spouses or to the press about what they did. "Imagine the scandal!" Today, yeah, we want to avoid that, but it's not so life-or-death that the avoidance of it could drive a whole screenplay.

"The Cheat" stars Tallulah Bankhead, and speaking of things that wouldn't work today, what a piece of work she is. I believe this is, in relative terms, a "young" Tallulah Bankhead, and though she's not playing a ballbreaker, for some reason she scares more than any of the monsters Universal was pushing in its horror movies of the era. I wonder if anyone ever called her "Tally Ho"?

This movie opens with a look inside one of those noted dens of iniquities where debauchery ran so rampant in the thirties: a yacht club. It's good of the filmmakers to establish this so early; sensitive viewers of the day could presumably head back to the lobby, demand their nickel back, and wait a few years for a Shirley Temple picture to arrive.

It's even worse than you might think, though, because these yacht clubbers are organizing a benefit for the Milk Fund, and we all know what THAT means, eh? We meet a big shot back from some wild safari tour (and we all know what THAT me--ah, never mind). He offers to host the Milk Fund shindig at his estate. He soon offers to host Tallulah at his estate, and she's married to another man!

Tally wants to see his place but not much more, so she spurns his advances. However, she runs up a big gambling debt, and since she simply can't have her husband find out, even though he loves her without reservation and is working on a lucrative financial transaction (I believe the company is called Enron). So she goes back to the big shot and agrees to, er, explore his place further, in exchange for--well, for money.

The creepy "big shot" is played by Irving Pichel, who steals the show with a performance so off-putting, I would have used that "scary Universal monster" line on him if Tallulah weren't top billed. Just listen to the way he says, "My money?" when Tallulah tries to return his contribution to her Get-Out-of-Debt fund. He's both mincing and menacing. Hey, I'm coining a new word: Minicing. I think the word "douchebag" is overused as an insult these days, but if it were widely used in the early 1930s, you can bet this character would be the poster boy.

It all leads to a big entanglement and one legitimately disturbing violent act. Still, "The Cheat" flirts with immorality and gives us a glimpse of that realm, but ultimately provides a scenario that strongly affirms conventional morality. Soon, the mere depiction or implication of pre-code kind of behavior was enough to lead to a Code. It seems pretty ridiculous by our standards because even a pre-code pic like this one is so obviously supportive of the status quo.

But my advice is to watch these movies just to be entertained and not for shock value. Just make sure you look under the bed before you turn out the lights at the end of the night. You sure wouldn't want Tallulah or Irving hiding under there.

Tomorrow I'll talk about the other movie on Disc 1, "Merrily We Go to Hell."