Monday, November 30, 2009

Gotta love Bear Manor Media

If I may "expose the business" a little bit here, let me tell you that I was all set to put up a tongue-in-cheek post about how I'd like to see a book called "The Definitive Quincy Companion," a volume devoted entirely to everyone's favorite TV M.E. I had come up with some of the features it should have, some of the tidbits I'd like to learn, et cetera.

Imagine my surprise (and while you're at it, imagine me kicking back in Aruba; I could use a vacation) when I saw an ad for Bear Manor Media books and saw that there IS a book about "Quincy, M.E." Yep, a fellow named James Rosin wrote it, and you can view/order it right here.

Now, I can't vouch for this, but it's awesome that someone wrote it, and it's possibly even awesomer that someone published it. Kudos to Bear Manor for publishing all sorts of cool works on film, radio, and TV. None of these books, as far as I know, features the cast of "Twilight," which makes Bear Manor's website a helluva lot more fun to peruse than the TV/Radio/Film shelf at your local Barnes & Noble.

I'm not a paid shill, by the way, just an average shark who's delighted and fascinated that a "Quincy" book is in print in 2009. I really ought to read more Bear Manor stuff, as they have a great-looking catalogue, and the last one I read (this one) was excellent.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

This Week in DVD

Angels and Demons: If there weren't a new Dan Brown book on bulky cardboard endcaps everywhere right now, would anyone even remember this movie came out this year? You know, if I didn't know any better, I'd say this sequel was a...I hesitate to even mention this...a bit of a cash grab.

Funny People: First, let me say I did not see this movie. But the two-disc has a 153-minute extended cut to complement the 146-minute cut of a film even many of its defenders thought was way too long. This, folks, is why DVD sales are down. (Not really the case at all, but I don't mind taking a shot at this Judd Apatow movie when I can).

2009 World Series Highlights: In case you thought Major League Baseball might deliver a Director's Cut to fix the mistakes it made in the postseason, nope, in this DVD, the Yankees still play the Phillies.

Four Christmases: I respect the discipline in holding off on the DVD of this 2008 comedy until now and ensuring a natural holiday shopping hook. Of course, it also provided time for everyone to forget how terrible it looked.

The Golden Age of Television: I know what you're thinking: How can any Age be considered Golden if it did not encompass the glorious reign of "What's Happenin'?" Excellent question, but you just have to take History's word for it, and not just History but TV History, no less. It's cool that Criterion is getting into fifties television here, but it is releasing some already out there material with apparently zero restoration work, so this looks like more of a rental than the must-buy it could have been.

Life on Mars Season 2: The good news I can stop waiting in vain for BBC America to rerun Season 2. The bad news is that now I can barely remember what the heck happened in Season 1.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents Season 4: This is a pivotal season because, as far as I knew, my RTV affiliate never ran any episodes after Season 3. The Master of Suspense had nothing on RTV, which keeps thousands of viewers waiting anxiously each day for which episode of a given series it'll pluck out of the pile and put on the air.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Brooks on Books: From Russia With Love

I'm slowly working my way through Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and finding them a lot of fun, both for expected reasons (espionage, violence, and adventure) and not-so-expected ones (such as the constant detail about Bond's meals and what he thinks about them).

Last week, I finished "From Russia with Love," in which the evil Soviet organization SMERSH plots to humiliate Bond, and thereby England, with the use of a beautiful Russkie woman as bait. It' s another fast, entertaining read, but this novel stands out for its remarkable structure: Bond himself does not appear until page 123 of my nifty little paperback edition, and he is not even mentioned till page 59!

In the meantime, we're introduced to the turncoat who has become an elite killing machine for the USSR. Even more intriguing, Fleming takes us not just behind the Iron Curtain, but deep behind it, all the way into the upper echelon of Soviet decisionmaking as the hated organization SMERSH discusses how to score a victory over the West. It's an entertaining journey into this circle, and it's amusing how political everyone is as they worry constantly about their own advancement and status--and, let's face it, their own survival. Fleming makes an interesting choice to go with this approach, and it sustains the novel while Bond is "off page."

When we meet old 007 again on page 123, we then get a build of a different kind, though there are some adventures and exciting set pieces in Turkey, and most of the Soviets disappear for a while. This all leads up to the climactic confrontation.


The question is, is all the build worth it? I'm not so sure it does pay off. The confrontation between Bond and his assassin is marred by a stretch of, as "The Incredibles" called it, "monologuing" which weakens the impact of this villain Fleming so meticulously develops earlier. It's also a little too short and not as satisfying as I would expect given the big intro given the Soviets. Fleming somewhat redeems this, though, with a powerful sequence afterwards involving arguably the true villain of the story.


Still, "From Russia with Love" is an entertaining effort, and though I keep mentioning the "buildup," the writing does not meander. In fact, it may be the tightest of the books so far, with less diversions for their own sake. This is the one famously listed by JFK as one of his favorite novels, and many call this the best of the 007s.

I don't think I'd say it's the best of the 5 I've read, but the supporting characters are memorable, the writing is solid, and for someone reading the series from the beginning, it's a nice change of pace and overall another fine entry.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Journey Into DVD: The Lineup (1958)

If you've already seen the 5 movies included in Sony's recent film noir box, or maybe if you have DVD or VHS copies of your own, here's an incentive to go for the set: The commentary tracks. I recently enjoyed Don Siegel's "The Lineup" twice, the second time while experiencing a fantastic collaboration between Eddie "Czar of Noir" Muller and James "Greatest Living Crime Fiction Writer" Ellroy.

(If you're thinking of disputing me on the distinction I give Ellroy, don't bother. I got the label from an impeccable source--Ellroy himself in this very commentary).

The movie itself is a blast, and well worth a look-see in its own right. It's not so "noir" as one might expect, perhaps, and it's actually based on the old police procedural TV show of the same name (later known as "San Francisco Beat") but it's a great crime pic, filled with unsavory characters, outstanding location shooting, and a memorable performance by Eli Wallach as a sociopath trying to track down a missing heroin shipment. Thinking back now, some of Wallach's facial expressions stand out to me--just specific ones he gives in individual scenes--and I think that's a sign of a memorable performance. He really is a riot, but then Robert Keith and Richard Jaeckel also stand out to a lesser extent.

One of the hallmarks of "The Lineup" is the awesome late-fifties location shooting in San Francisco. It's a treat, then, to hear S.F. native Eddie Muller pointing out aspects of the geography, sites of interests, and other tidbits as the commentary track unfolds. The saddest threat that runs through it is the constant reminders of a past city that is no longer there in that form and never will be. Muller laments the loss of many of these locations as he points them out. Progress is progress, I guess. At least we have movies like this to preserve some of that history.

That's the saddest thread to me, but some of you might find Ellroy's obsessions sadder. Personally, I find the "Demon Dog" a fascinating observer, especially when he's paired with someone like Muller who is capable of steering the discussion on track as needed.

When Muller and Ellroy teamed up on a commentary for "Crime Wave" in WB's Film Noir Collection Volume 4, skittish Warner Brothers suits/lawyers reportedly censored a heap of it. Well, "The Lineup" is a Sony product, and, well...let's just say the Sony Standards and Practices Department is a helluva lot more mellow.

Throughout this audio commentary, you will hear profanity galore (including the glorious f-bomb), remarks about sexuality, drug references, and all sorts of other fun tangents. Ellroy being Ellroy, he often delves into his own interests, such as labeling seemingly every other character as a homosexual (not that he's always wrong in this regard, as there is some fairly overt stuff in the picture), referring to San Fran as "the Joan Zone" after a former object of his affection from the city, and--perhaps best of all--frequently expressing his fascist wish that police departments had more power; the power, for example, to bash a suspect in the head with a phone book in order to get information or, well, hell, just because.

At the beginning of one scene, Ellroy identifies a character--one we see for the first time, mind you--as homosexual within seconds (if that), and when Muller asks him about it, he just says it's his vibe. Later, as another character interacts with a little girl in a non-threatening way (at least on the surface), Ellroy is the one who "goes there," groaning something like, "Oh, on top of everything else, the guy's a pederast, too." Not that there's anything at all funny about that crime, of course, or even this scene the way it's filmed, but the the way Ellroy says this catches me off guard and cracks me up.

Muller strikes the right tone in dealing with his partner in crime here, indulging his comments without condoning them, often laughing with or sort of at them, too. The guys have a nice rapport that only enhances this bonus feature, and though Ellroy does go a little off the rails sometimes, he is strangely compelling, though Muller could have done an excellent track alone as well.

"The Lineup" is a great crime movie with a thrilling finish and several outstanding scenes. In addition to the great commentary track, there is a featurette about noir and the film's original trailer. I'd say this one is worth the cost of the DVD box set alone, but it's an expensive package, so I'm sure as hell not gonna say it's that good. But if you're interested in the other movies in the set for any reason, go ahead and get it if you can. "The Lineup" will not disappoint you.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The fuddy-duddy returns: Law & Order SVU on at 10AM?

I may sound like an ol' fuddy-duddy again here, but does anyone really need to see Law and Order: SVU at 10:00 in the morning?

Hey, if people do, great, but the local My TV affiliate, an "over the air" (can we still use that term?) television outlet runs SVU each weekday at this early time.

It's not the only thing on at 10:00 A.M. that's inappropriate for the younger set, but it does kind of stand out to me. When a show like SVU is in first-run, it may draw some controversy (well, not now, when anything goes, but humor me here; it did before), but it's pointed out that it's at night, it's maybe in a relatively later time slot and not the "family hour" (remember the family hour), etc.

Then the reruns start, and the time gets bumped up, and maybe it's on cable and all, but still.

Now it's on a non-cable channel every morning at 10:00. So you get up, have breakfast, maybe see your spouse off to work, help the older kids to school, then head out for a play date with your little one, and when you walk back in the door, you might be just in time to relax with an hour of...(let's see the descriptions, via, for this week's episodes):

Monday: Stabler seeks an HIV-positive rapist who preys on young girls.
Tuesday: Party hosts are found murdered.
Wednesday: Special guest star David Keith helps track a serial rapist-killer.
Thursday: "The investigation of a shooting near a gay bar leads to a couple's involvement with porn movies." If on Thanksgiving your family is sick of the Macy's parade, here's another option!
Friday: This episode involves kidnapping and illegal adoption. There's nothing about rape listed in the synopsis, but I'm sure it's in the show somewhere.

I'm not saying someone should make WDCA-20 remove SVU from its schedule or anything. I just feel kind of weird about this being on so early, you know what I mean? Perry Mason and Joe Mannix and [first name unknown] Quincy might have investigated murders for years in early-morning reruns, but their adventures were a tad less graphic, and rape wasn't likely to show up in each episode (In "the good old days," I guess you could say shows used rape as an occasional treat, not the staple of the diet).

So, yeah, this is just kind of odd. Maybe it's not such a big deal anymore, but...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Journey into DVD: Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre

To commemorate what would have been Dick Powell's 105th birthday over the weekend, I was thinking of watching the great "Cry Danger," but I opted instead for a few episodes of his 1950s western anthology, "Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre."

Ever since I got this set, I have admired the ridiculousness of that title. Not that it's ever a mistake to get a great brand name out there, and, hey, how can you resist TWO brand names on your TV show? It does sound awkward, though, doesn't it? I decided to embrace it rather than mock it, and as far as I'm concerned, this particular copy of VCI's DVD set is "Rick Brooks' Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre." If I ever sell this package, the next guy can figure out what he wants to call it.

The show is a lot of fun. Like many anthologies of the 1950s, "RBDPZGT" delivers a new prominent guest star each episode, and it's fun to just launch the episodes without peeking and enjoy spotting the familiar faces. The half-hour stories are efficient but carry some weight, and from what I've seen so far, this is a fine, entertaining TV oater.

I particularly enjoy "RBDPZGT's" structure. Each show begins with a brief scene, usually one loaded with tension, that establishes the story. Instead of getting a representative spot from the middle of the show, as one might expect, we get a distinct bit that gets things hopping right away. The first few times I watched these DVDs, I had to remind myself not to get lazy during that cold open because I would NOT be seeing it again!

Perhaps the best part of each half-hour is Powell's droll intro following the open. He comes out in some kind of western duds, stands in front of a scenic backdrop that wouldn't fool Mary Ingalls, and explains a concept related to the Old West, usually while holding some kind of relevant prop. Powell strikes the right tone, implanting the tongue far enough in his cheek to carry off the comedic bits but holding back enough in his delivery so as to avoid demeaning the material we're about to see. In fact, Powell, unlike Al Hitchcock, does not return after the story to send us out on a light note; in my opinion, this serves the show well, allowing the impact of the episode to sink in.

A great feature on this attractive VCI package is the inclusion of original series promos and teasers. I wish more companies would add these to their TV on DVD releases. I can't believe Paramount doesn't have tons of this kind of material sitting around. It would be cool to program a night of classic TV at my house, using these kinds of promos as filler. Yes, I know I'm a dork, but I'd like to do that. I don't understand why DVD companies can't add some of the cool stuff to their discs instead of making us go to YouTube. I imagine it kills the mood if you're running a classic TV DVD program, and all of a sudden you ask everybody in your den to crowd into the office so you can load an old commercial on Google Video.

There are some of those spots on RBDPZGT, and I am grateful to VCI. Hey, I'm glad VCI did such a fine overall job with this relatively unknown Western. I hope to see more seasons, and I hope every fan of this kind of material is aware this is out there and gives the series a look.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vault of Coolness: CBN TV schedule in 1983

I've learned in the past few years that my dad and I were far from the only ones who enjoyed the heck out of CBN's old-school TV lineup back in the 1980s. My pal Ivan at TDOY is but one of the classic rerun lovers who appreciated that channel. Nick at Nite got most of the attention back then, and it seems more widely remembered today, but as a kid, I was much more into CBN's lineup. It and WPIX, along with the great taste of my family, were the main forces that drilled a love of vintage TV into my impressionable young skull.

Wouldn't it be fun to look at CBN's schedule from the week before Christmas 1983? Several ownership changes lately, the former Christian Broadcasting Network is now ABC Family, and while many are grateful for the heavy airplay it gives the classic TV holiday specials each year, oh, what we've lost.

Here's the weekday classic TV lineup, courtesy of an old newspaper TV supplement from December 1983:

8:00 AM Blondie
8:30 AM My Little Margie
9:00 AM Dobie Gillis
9:30 AM I Married Joan

(I'm skipping the movie and the religious programs)

Game shows take over at 4:30 with Bullseye, followed by Tic-Tac-Dough, Let's Make a Deal, and Treasure Hunt, then we get to the westerns with...

6:30 PM The Rifleman
7:00 PM Alias Smith and Jones

Then we return to the present with...

8:00 PM I Spy

It looks like what follows on weekdays are a combo of "700 Club" and some other shows on a semi-regular basis before we get to the regular nightly lineup of...

11:30 PM Dobie Gillis
12:00 AM Burns and Allen
12:30 AM Jack Benny
1:00 AM I Married Joan
1:30 AM Love That Bob
2:00 AM Bachelor Father
2:30 AM Life of Riley

What a cool assortment of shows! I don't love all these programs, and I suppose an ingrate like me could nitpick and wish they'd sub in a few others instead of repeating Dobie and Joan, but still. Some of these shows are still aired today, but often only a small portion of episodes are in rotation. I don't remember that being an issue with CBN--not that as a child I was able to stay up every night till 1:00 to track Jack Benny episodes (though given what I know now, I kind of wish I had).

Of course, at other times, CBN aired programs like "You Bet Your Life," "The Bill Cosby Show," (Hey, Shout, how about finishing off this one?) as well.

It's kind of funny to think that, though I don't watch religious programming on television, I long for the days of the old Christian Broadcasting Network and remember it as a much more useful resource than ABC Family.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving from Sleuth, the network for, uh...bad movies

Oh, how naive I was to think Sleuth would be a decent cable network. By the time I got it a few years ago, it was already sliding downhill, but now it's deteriorated from USA Network 2 to something like USA Network 5 or 6. It's not just that the network abandoned all pretense of providing programming appropriate to its name, though that is a big part of it.

Just for fun, let's look at Sleuth's Thanksgiving Day lineup.

6:00 AM Ed TV
8:30 AM Little Miss Sunshine
11:00 AM Ed TV
1:30 PM Little Miss Sunshine
4:00 PM Friday After Next
6:00 PM Thank You for Smoking
8:00 PM Along Came Polly
10:00 PM Thank You for Smoking
12:00 AM Along Came Polly
2:00 AM Friday After Next
4:00 AM National Lampoon's Dad's Week Off

Heavens to Columbo, what the hell is this supposed to represent? Seeing this schedule makes me want to drop to my knees and beg Roger Goodell's forgiveness for bitching about the NFL scheduling the Oakland Raiders on Thanksgiving. I'll watch a 2009 Raiders games marathon before I watch all of these movies like this.

My apologies to the makers of "Thank You for Smoking," which is a decent film that doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the others, but what is it doing on Sleuth?

And, hey, what is NBC Universal doing holding off a gem like "National Lampoon's Dad's Week Off" till 4:00 in the morning when the whole family could be gathered around the Philco watching it before or after other family classics like "The Wizard of Oz" and "It's a Wonderful Life"?

I'm getting close to using parental block-out technology on Sleuth not because I'm worried about my daughter being exposed to it, but because it's raising my blood pressure each time I bother to see what it's airing.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Brooks on Books: The Purpose of the Past by Gordon Wood

I don't know if distinguished historian, author, and professor Gordon Wood is a fan of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, but each time I pick up this book, I can't help but sing:

The purpose of the past
is to love a woman
And the purpose of a woman
is to love the past
So come on, baby, let's start today
Come on, baby, let's play
The game of love (love)
love (love)
la la la la la love...

And then I get this picture of Wood at some dive bar just off campus, breaking away from his tweed-jacketed colleagues and approaching a comely grad student in the corner, telling her, "Hey, baby, you love the past?"

You judge whether that's disrespectful to this respected scholar or just a really cool scenario.

As for the book: "The Purpose of the Past" is a collection of previously published Gordon Wood book reviews from a variety of publications such as "The New York Review of Books," nearly all dealing with the early days of America. The selection isn't random; each review represents a different approach to history, such as "fiction," "multiculturalism," postmodernism," and many more. Each review covers the book's topic and the writing, but it also gives Wood an opportunity to discuss the relative merits of the approach to history used by the author. New afterwords written for this volume clarify Wood's thinking.

There is some interesting material here for casual history fans as well as some possible reading list additions, but it's not a breezy read. Wood often criticizes inaccessible, overly dense writing, and he is certainly not guilty of providing that, but this is as much a book about how to practice and study history as it is history itself. You might have to be pretty committed to want to read reviews that use words like "epistemology" so often, and many casual readers might be turned off by such an inside baseball approach.

Wood raves about some authors and layeth the smack down on others. One thing that really bugs him is the imposition of modern attitudes and beliefs on the individuals and events of the past; his eloquent attacks on such anachronistic approaches recur throughout the reviews.

I sort of picked this up at random, and while I don't know if I found too many things to add to my own "must read" list, I enjoyed Wood's writing, and the reviews here are educational both about American history itself and how it is written and has been over the years. It's provocative and compelling even for a non-historian such as myself, someone who just likes to read some history every now and then. So I enjoyed "The Purpose of the Past" and polished it off pretty quickly. I have to admit, though, that's enough of this kind of thing for now. Next I'd rather just read one of Wood's fine history books. However, I'd certainly be glad to read his reviews of other works as they appear.

Friday, November 13, 2009

This Week in DVD

Up: Without a doubt, the best film I've seen in a theater this year. Hey, don't penalize it for being the only film I've seen in a theater this year.

Watchmen The Ultimate Cut: Apparently this is some sort of 5-disc edition. How can they possibly 5 discs with this? Does one disc consist of videos of castmembers sitting down and reading the graphic novel to themselves?

The Ugly Truth: If you were to tell me last year that Katherine Heigl would be in a romantic comedy with Gerald Butler, I'd probably say..."Hey, isn't she supposed to be a real pain in the ass?" because even then, that's pretty much what everyone was saying about her.

American Virgin: Hey, studios: I don't EVER AGAIN want to see Rob Schneider's mug on a DVD cover underneath the words "American Virgin."

Spread: And I don't ever again want to see Ashton Kutcher's torso on a DVD cover, period.

World Series Film Collection: A gigantic box set collecting the films that recap each year's Fall Classic. Give MLB credit for not putting pinstripes on the packaging. Hey, we Pirate fans can party like it's 1979 again!

Three Stooges Collection Volume 7: Hey, this one has a few shorts in 3-D. 3-D, I tells ya!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cable Movie Roundup #3

And now, some more quick takes on films seen via free premium cable by yours cheaply--uh, truly.

Mr. Bean's Holiday: Never as funny as I wanted it to be, but with some good bits for Bean lovers, this is a worthwhile watch on TV or video, but I would have felt let down had I paid big screen bucks. I have to give special props to Willem Dafoe for his hilarious performance as a pretentious big-shot director (redundant?). I'd say he steals the movie, but come on, you don't steal a movie from Rowan Atkinson.

The Rocker: This is another one of those comedies with an ill-defined lead character who is alternately mockable and awesome depending on the current need of the screenplay (See also "Get Smart"). This does Rainn Wilson no favors, and while it may have seemed like a good idea to cast him as a drummer who is booted out of his band, then leads a group of high schoolers to success--hey, wait, this does sound funny now that I type it out. Where was I?

Oh, yeah, problem is, I personally don't think Wilson can carry a comedy feature as a lead, and this movie does nothing to dispel that opinion, but on the other hand, it's not his fault he's saddled with a contrived romance with Christina Appelgate and other phony movie-ish moments. This ain't "School of Rock," but it tries mightily to get that kind of heart. Special props to Emma Stone, however, for her charming turn in this. She's taken not-stellar roles in "Superbad," "House Bunny," and this, and turned each into something worthwhile. I think she should get some more buzz as a go-to young actress. Maybe she should do something with Willem Dafoe.

Be Kind Rewind: Not at ALL what it was marketed as. I mean, not at ALL. Seriously. You get what I'm saying here?

Maybe I missed the tweet that told everyone this wasn't a zany comedy about Jack Black and Mos Def recreating famous movies and renting their versions to an increasingly appreciative video store customer fanbase, but ultimately a thoughtful meditation on truth, community, and mythmaking. So I was particularly jarred when the movie abruptly became that, and maybe that transition combined with my preconceptions to put me out of commission on this one.

I might pick up something on a rewatch, but I had trouble getting through it, with the laughs just not there in enough numbers to hold my attention till the story became more thoughtful.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Last week in DVD

Blogging is inherently a self-indulgent exercise in many respects, but putting up a post about last week's DVD releases may be pushing it. "Like we need to read what this jerk thinks about G.I. Joe?" But I started off trying a "Last Week and This Week in DVD" post, then it spiraled out of control, and I decided to split it up. So you get to read what this jerk thinks about "G.I. Joe."

G.I. Joe: OK, I didn't see this movie.

But I will say this: We've seen the Real American Hero, we've seen TWO Transformers movies...On behalf of every red-blooded male who grew up playing with toys in the eighties, I gotta ask: Where's that live-action My Little Pony film?

I Love You, Beth Cooper: Sure, this Chris Columbus adaptation of the outstanding Larry Doyle comic novel garnered wretched reviews, reviews so negative star Hayden Paniettere must have longed for the relative acclaim surrounding "Heroes." But you know what? I love the book, and I'm confident that after seeing this one on DVD...

I'll still love the book.

Sony Film Noir Set: A 5-film box set of old Columbia noir/crime flicks with extras galore. All I can say is, Sony is bringing it lately.

Claudette Colbert Collection: Sure wish Universal would unleash some of the noirs it controls, but film fans should be happy with this release, a rather unheralded one from what I gather. I guess Universal sees the marketing potential of Colbert since her great grandson is so prominent on Comedy Central. I sure hope Comedy picks up "Weeknight Update with Bob Noir."

Taking of Pelham 1-2-3: Fortunately for all of us, this remake was halfway decent enough that we don't have to grapple with the difficult issue of whether it's too soon to make fun of John Travolta.

Food, Inc.: Why does it seem like every few months now, there's some new documentary or feature telling me why everything I eat is morally and dietarily wrong? Big Food needs to come out with a counterattack. Or at least give us some free burgers.

Hardwired: A direct to video Cuba Gooding/Val Kilmer pairing. This is both funny and sad, but most of all, it's not at all surprising.

The Room: I've read lots of good things about this notoriously bad movie. Some say it's even worse than "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," and to them I reply, "Oh, come on!" I mean, like anybody remained conscious through that one. Getting back to "The Room," at least Cuba Gooding and Val Kilmer didn't wind up in it.

Mission Impossible Season 7: A series all wrapped up! Paramount released it in 7 sets, not 14, and as far as I can tell, the world is spinning, and it figures to keep going (until everything goes kerblooey in 2012, of course, at which point Paramount might be up to season 3 of "My Three Sons).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ranting about Reruns (Part 2)

I complain a lot about what's NOT on TV, so I think it's time to mix things complaining about what IS on TV. I used to enjoy reading Sitcoms Online's news blog because it would bring news of an exciting program acquisition for a rerun outlet like TV Land or American Life. Now, at least once a week, I read something that makes me groan.

Let's examine what TV channels and networks are running when they're NOT showing classics like "Mannix," "Room 222," "The Paper Chase," name it.

*Sue Thomas, F.B.Eye. I hate to rip on shows I don't watch just to make a point, but...well...I don't have a big gripe with this show getting rerun exposure (though I didn't know it ever really left Pax/ION), but do we need TWO channels' worth of it? Both American Life and Gospel Music Channel show this weekdays, with GMC giving it two shots a day.

That's a whole lotta Sue Thomas. I'm just sayin'. But at least this is a rerun of a show that isn't on anymore. We somehow reached a point where the mission of practically every programming outlet extant is to recycle the stuff that's on right now. Well, not literally right now, but currently in first-run, though chances are, whenever you read this, someone is showing...

*Bones: I don't dare make fun of this one, a Mrs. Cultureshark favorite. But, oh, boy, do I get my fill of this show, just by secondhand exposure. Fox shows it allegedly once a week, WGN America runs it, the local "My TV" affiliate airs it frequently, and then there's TNT. Oh, is there TNT.

As I write this, TNT is showing "Bones" at 7, 8, 9, AND 10. Tomorrow it'll be on at 7, 8, and 9. Thursday, an NBA game limits it to one episode, but Friday, Angel and "Don't Call Me Zooey" Deschannel return at 7 and 8.

There isn't this much "Bones" in the Museum of Natural History.

*How about "Ghost Whisperer"? CBS gives this its weekly airing Friday nights, but for some unknown reason, WE, ION, and SyFy are all showing reruns. You want to talk about unexplained phenomena? Someone figure out what the interest is in THIS MUCH "Ghost Whisperer." If you really want to do the research, you don't have to go visit a haunted graveyard or anything. Just turn it to SyFy Monday night and settle in for FOUR STRAIGHT EPISODES starting at 7.

Is every channel just giving up now? I know USA and Bravo programmers threw their hands up a while ago and decided just to run blocks of their own shows and "repurposed" acquisitions, but now everyone is getting in on the act.

Even shows I like are abused by this laziness. TV Guide Network and TV Land just bought rights to air hacked-up episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." I love "Curb," but, even avoiding questions of how good the show will be in censored form, I don't want to see it all over the place. Oh, did I forget to mention that WGN America will also be airing it?

I'm sick of this kind of programming, which is enough to drive a man to RTV, an outlet which sometimes shows the same episodes over and over again, but at least the episodes aren't ones that were on CBS last week.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cultureshark Recommends: Tv Documentaries

I've seen a bunch of smart docs on the idiot box lately, and though they have all aired already, I still want to recommend them here. It takes me a while to wade through the vast amount of...well, junk I accumulate on my DVR, OK? If you haven't seen 'em, hopefully these'll pop up again in some format.

Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times: Did PBS even tell anybody this was gonna be on? I barely snagged it, and after viewing it, I couldn't believe it didn't get more attention. It's a classy but compelling look at the very creation of Los Angeles, its rise as a major city, and some of its struggles through the years, all filtered through the Chandler family and the "Los Angeles Times" it published. It delves into the corruption of the LAPD, the political influence of the historically conservative Chandlers, and the gradual decline of the newspaper industry, all in a coherent, entertaining 2-hour package narrated by the ever-smooth Liev Schreiber. Not to mention that pretty stellar pun in the title. If any of this appeals to you, watch this documentary.

JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America: I suppose there are some people who complain each time the History Channel (or, excuse me, HISTORY) finds another way to get a few hours of programming out of the JFK assassination. Come on, though, even if you resent baby boomers and their obsessions, is this really the kind of programming we want to cite to get on History's case? Of course not. I almost always enjoy JFK-assassination-related programs, and while I've seen a lot of them, this one offered plenty of new footage.

Unblike many recent productions of the channel, this one didn't rely on reenactments. In fact, other than a vaguely ominous musical score and some stark, unobtrusive title screens (mostly to keep track of the actual time that day as events unfolded), it was all archival footage from different TV and radio sources.

The two-hour special took us in sequential order from JFK's arrival in Dallas to Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, and it was filled with poignant moments. I was particularly struck by footage of Americans reacting to the shocking news. It's amazing that all these years later, the occasion still has that power, and the fact that it does means there is still the potential for worthwhile documentaries on the subject, even when they don't jump into the rabbit hole of conspiracy. This is an outstanding effort worth seeing even if you have seen a ton of Kennedy stuff.

ESPN 30 for 30: Muhammad and Larry: I've seen several of the ESPN "30 for 30" documentaries, all of which are fascinating hourlong programs. This one is a fine mix of the contemporaneous Maysles brothers film from 1980 documenting the Muhammad Ali/Larry Holmes heavyweight boxing championship match with new interviews.

Holmes demolished a pre-Parkinsons but already diminished Ali in the bout, and apparently people lost their will for the project, so the original material is resurrected for this documentary, which focuses on the senselessness of Ali taking the fight in the first place. It's stunning to see Ali deteriorate even over the course of the 1980 footage, and you don't need to see him struggling to take on a speed bag to know something was wrong even before Holmes destroyed him.

Holmes comes off as a pretty cool dude. Vilified at the time for taking down a legend and never really appreciated as a champion, the guy lives in his hometown of Easton, is a fixture in the community, is married to the same woman he was in '80, and seems to have most of his faculties intact.

I'm no Ali fan, but it's easy to feel sorry for him (without blaming Holmes) when you see this remarkable time capsule. The "30 for 30" film raises questions about why Ali was still boxing at 38 years old, and it at least hints at many of the unsavory aspects of the sport. Come to think of it, are there any great boxing movies that DON'T deal with the unsavory aspects of the sport?

Even if you resent the canonization of Ali and the pass he apparently gets for the way he treated people like Joe Frazier, you will be moved by "Muhammad and Larry," an evocative exploration of a major sporting event that has gone underdocumented seemingly because people have wanted to forget about it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Budget DVD Theater: Life with Elizabeth

Let me tell you something about my dad. He loves old TV, and he loves finding 1950s and 1960s TV shows on dollar DVDs. I should say LOVED, because it looks like the days of dollar DVDs are gone. We miss the joy of entering a Target and finding a new batch of cheapo discs, and I even regret not having the opportunity to wade through dozens of "Bonanza" and Superman cartoon discs to find something I haven't already seen at 18 different stores.

Yes, my dad and I love Budget DVD Theater, but there's one show he does not love. In fact, he hates it. In much the same way the womenfolk in the family cringe when the men raise the specter of a Wheeler and Woolsey marathon, I can make him shudder with the mere mention of one mostly forgotten 1950s syndicated sitcom:

"Life with Elizabeth."

(Note to self: Next time, enhance suspense by not revealing name of sitcom in question in the title of the post)

My father and I are pals, and I can't ever see myself intentionally causing him harm, but much like Batman keeps some kryptonite in the Batcave in case he needs to confront Superman, I always have a cheapo DVD or two of "Life with Elizabeth" on hand just in case Dad ever goes rogue.

Now, you might think this show isn't all THAT bad, especially considering it stars Betty White. Everyone loves Betty White, the sharp-witted comedienne, game show personality, and all-around talented TV icon, right?

Well, that Betty White isn't in "Life With Elizabeth." No, here she is playing a goofy, naive young bride--not stupid, exactly, but sort of childish in her overall outlook and tendency to get her cute little self into these darned crazy situations. There's no edge, no guile, just a lovably silly housewife who often needs to get her comeuppance from her smug, condescending husband Alvin.

On "I Love Lucy," those crazy situations might include struggling to keep up with a conveyor belt of candy or clowning around with a Hollywood celebrity. On "Life with Elizabeth," the TV is broken. Or she wants to plant a tree, and Alvin says no. Or the couple goes to a drive-in restaurant and encounters a malaprop-spouting waitress who can't get their order right.

Yes, folks, this is gentle comedy. Gentle comedy has its place, especially in old-school TV, but I also like comedic comedy, and the problem with "Life with Elizabeth" is it's just not that funny. Almost all the jokes come in the form of some groan-inducing pun Elizabeth shares with Alvin, and even though she giggles each time she delivers one as if to let us know she knows it's silly, it's still supposed to be funny.

The show is pretty bad, to be sure, but I don't think it's as bad as my father thinks it is. I don't think anything could be as bad as he thinks it is. Yet all I have to do is suggest we put in an episode of this one, and I can practically hear him thinking, "How difficult is it to legally disown your son?" And this is a man who has seen and enjoyed an awful lot of garbage over the years--much of it stuff he would admit is garbage.

I don't know what makes this particular series his nemesis, but I do find the format sort of intriguing. An announcer (future game show mainstay Jack Narz) introduces the show and the characters and tells us we'll see 3 incidents in the life of this married couple. He sets up the first segment by saying, "In our first incident..." and then he pops up throughout the show to introduce and bridge the segments. This all looks rather quaint today.

Oh, and Betty White often looks to the camera and responds to comments from the announcer when those segments begin. From what I've seen, though, she usually ignores us when Alvin enters the room. That Alvin! As played by Del Moore, this insufferable hubby is grating today, but perhaps back then his generic imperious male character was more tolerable.

In fact, the only way I can really enjoy "Life with Elizabeth" is to imagine that Elizabeth loathes Alvin and spends all her waking hours plotting ways to aggravate him as payback for being such a pill. She keeps a dopey smile on her face the whole time to mask the genuine delight she takes in disrupting Alvin's day with her inane comments and puns.

I guess the show is going for this on some small level, with White playing a mischievous but pleasant scamp, but as played, it's not good enough for me. No, I have to believe Elizabeth herself is a brilliant performer, not to mention cunning enough to never let her guard down and reveal to anyone--not the viewers watching her 30 minutes a week, not the pesky announcer who keeps sticking his nose in her business, and CERTAINLY not her "better half"--that her entire existence is but one long buildup to the day when her ridiculous jokes finally lull Alvin into a deep enough state of weary indifference that she can bludgeon him with a rolling pin and marry an insurance salesman.

That is almost enough to get me through an episode in which the big joke is Elizabeth making a pun with "votes" and "volts" while Alvin tries to fix the TV set. I don't think it works for my dad, though, and if he sees this post, he may try to bludgeon ME with a rolling pin just for writing so much about this show.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ranting about reruns (Part 1)

Today I want to talk about what you ARE NOT seeing on television these days. I rent a lot of TV on DVD through Netflix, and I try to feature a handful of shows in an informal rotation, spreading the series out rather than watching a whole season in a short period of time.

This year, I've seen some excellent TV series this way, and I think it's a shame that I have to see them on DVD rather than on the tube. Sure, I'm thankful that I at least have the opportunity to view these neglected shows, but come on, isn't the point of TV to recycle itself? These days, reruns are endless screenings of shows that were on a few years ago or "repurposed" airings of episodes that were on a few weeks ago. I grew up on a heavy diet of classic reruns. Where would I be without my endless viewings of "Brady Bunch," "Gilligan's Island," or--OK, maybe the Sherwood Schwartz sitcoms aren't the greatest examples. But the point is there is not much room for quality old-school television in today's landscape. For example, why can't we see...

The Invaders: I believe this was on Sci-Fi back before I got the channel, and of course the new SyFy isn't interested in an ancient show like this Quinn Martin production anymore than it is interested in offering a name that doesn't induce guffaws.

Season 1 is really good stuff, and while I wouldn't recommend watching big chunks of it at a time--the format gets a little repetitive, and you start to question some of the show's plot elements--it would make a great weekend rerun offering. A Sat.-Sun. slot would also avoid burning through the show's limited number of episodes. If invading aliens are passe just because they're 40 years old, well, then it's a sad time for TV. Of course, ABC is remaking "V" and trying to avoid using the word "aliens," so I guess they're half-afraid of sci-fi. But why is Sci-Fi afraid of sci-fi? Because it's "old," I guess--even though this one is, as it proudly proclaims at the start of each episode, IN COLOR.

Room 222: I talked about this one before. It's a gentle, amusing show, probably quaint to younger audiences today. But who cares about younger audiences? Well, besides advertisers? Good TV is good TV, and this is the kind of show that deserves another look. I mean, it's no "Saved by the Bell," but don't baby boomers have any kind of cachet anymore?

Mannix: OK, I understand why a laid-back show about kindhearted teachers and the social problems of the 1960s might seem a tad dated in this era of "The Wire," but "Mannix" is hip even today. The show is in color (if not IN COLOR), it features a private eye, and Mike Connors kicks ass. And I mean that literally. The show is violent as hell, which ought to appeal to today's bloodthirsty audiences. People die in this series. Mannix often kills them. Oh, if Sleuth would only show something like this instead of...whatever it shows these days.

The Paper Chase: I can actually understand why this one isn't on anymore. It's a dramedy about law students, but they don't hop into each other's beds each episode or pass out after drug overdoses at off-campus parties every night. I've only seen most of the first season, but I'm pretty sure "The Paper Chase" never built up an episode on the intrigue of which of its characters would engage in a threesome. The fact is, the straight college drama genre just doesn't appeal to the powers that be anymore. Straight-up dramedy is getting rarer. "The Paper Chase" is an example of a genre known as GOOD TV, and sadly, that's just not enough to get it in reruns nowadays.

Maybe an outlet like RTV will eventually get around to showing programs just because they are good, but until then, we will have to rely on DVD to check out these sort-of-lost classics. After all, the TV channels we have are filling their schedule with...Well, let's get to that in a future post.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wonderful World of TCM: Lightning Round!

Arsene Lupin: This 1932 account of the master jewel thief is a little slow in the middle, but it's still entertaining to see Lupin, played by John Barrymore, match wits with Detective Guerchard, played by my favorite Barrymore of them all, Lionel.

By the way, "Arsene" is not pronounced by starting with "Arse," and his name is not a fancy way of saying "Wolf Man." Despite those disappointments, the movie is still a good one. Lionel knows who the mysterious criminal is, but he can't prove it, and John delights in getting his goat. What he REALLY delights in getting is the Mona Lisa, which he vows to seize right under Guerchard's nose.

Nobody takes any of this seriously, and there is a romantic element that adds to the lightness of it all. The dueling Barrymores are pretty much the whole show, and they're enough. I don't care much for the ending, but it's more or less in line with the rest of "Lupin," which treats the whole situation as a game between two gentlemen rather than any kind of high-stakes police crisis.

Hallelujah! I'm a Bum: A fascinating Depression-era musical that "proves" that poverty ain't so bad--in fact, it's downright grand! Al Jolson is the de facto mayor of the Central Park bum community, but he is good friend to the "real" mayor of NYC, played by Frank Morgan. When Morgan's girlfriend tries to commit suicide after a misunderstanding, Jolson saves her and falls in love with the amnesiac woman. Complications ensue, and while the movie is mostly a lark, there is some genuine emotion in these relationships and how they unfold.

The movie is a real curio in part because of how it blends Rodgers and Hart songs with rhyming dialogue and regular dialogue. There's never a dull moment in "Hallelujah," and Jolson and Morgan create likable but credible personas even within this offbeat format. Silent film legend Harry Langdon even gets a nice supporting role.

The music, the rhyming dialogue, the performances, the witty script, and the interesting depiction of life from the "bum's" perspective all contribute to the unique atmosphere. This one's a real keeper, and while I haven't seen much of Al Jolson, I can't imagine him coming off much better than he does here,

Tales of Terror: A fun collection of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, with old favorite Vinnie Price narrating and appearing in each segment. Fun but unspectacular, though I'll bet the set design and cinematography really popped in the theater (and on a better TV than mine). The highlight is the middle chapter, "The Black Cat," with Peter Lorre's hilarious performance carrying a story that takes a while to get to where it ends up getting.

There are other fun aspects of this Roger Corman joint , including lovely ladies such as Debra Paget. I wasn't overwhelmed by anything in the film, but it offers 3 amusing tales and makes for a nice pre-Halloween movie. Uh, sorry for telling you that AFTER Halloween.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Brooks on Books: I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America's Top Comics

I'm the kind of guy who often works on 3 or 4 books at the same time. For example, I might have a large volume I read at home, a more compact paperback I can carry with me, and maybe a "light reading" kind of book I can dip into every now and then.

I often find the "light reading" book, the one I intend to look at sporadically, is so engrossing that I just plow right through it. This is the deal with "I Killed," a fantastic read that I could not set aside for any significant length of time. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in standup comedy.

Authors Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff, themselves standup comedians, assembled a host of "road" stories from their brethren, then arranged them into bit-sized anecdotes typically no longer than a page or so. The life of the comic is not an easy one, filled with cheap hotels, dive bars, and shady characters, but it sure provides grist for a lot of hilarious stories.

Many of these tales involve sex, drugs, and alcohol. Many involve various forms of illegal behavior. Some are likely exaggerated. Some, especially a few near the end, are actually sweet and touching. Almost all of them are entertaining.

You'll see almost every big name comic of the eighties and nineties represented here, plus some older and newer. The authors don't arrange them in any kind of real order, with the exception of a some sidebars that group really short tales--like a paragraph--that share a theme. I kind of like this approach because you never know who or what will turn up next--though you can bet it will involve heckling.

Despite what Bill Maher says in here about the phenomenon being much rarer than one would think, reading "I Killed" gives you the impression that standup comedy is basically a war between the guy on stage and the inevitable lout in the audience who seeks to disrupt the performance. Whether it's as frequent as the sheer number of stories in this compilation indicates, it sure makes for some humorous war stories.

I'm not sure how much work Shydner and Schiff did in crafting this book after conducting the interviews. Many entries read like simple transcriptions of what the comic said in person or over the phone or whatever. That's not a knock. The (apparent) lack of editing and extraneous material get the comic's voice across and give the book a kind of casual authenticity.

If you're easily offended, you might not be a big fan of many of these performers, anyway, and in that case, you ought to skip this book. Almost everyone who has enjoyed standup comedy on any level, though, will love "I Killed" and hope for a sequel.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Panel Discussion: Good Morning, Spidey

I love this combination of panels in "Amazing Spider-Man" #12. First we get the great image of Giant Dream Spidey lecturing himself.

As for the next panel, all I'll say is that Peter Parker is becoming a young man, and he will soon learn that it is not unusual to wake up in the morning with a "zingarooo."