Wednesday, March 31, 2010

5 reasons why I felt creeped out watching "Superdad" (1974) with Bob Crane

I watched this Bob Crane family movie from Disney (Oh, how naive we were back in the early seventies) when Hallmark Movie Channel ran it a few weeks ago. Normally, I don't watch chopped-up old movies when I can avoid them, but if you can't make an exception for "Superdad," when can you?

Even if you forget the modern connotations of "Bob Crane family movie," it's hard to really get into "Superdad." Oh, it's pleasant, and there isn't really anything grating about it apart from Bruno Kirby as Stanley (Is his voice as squeaky as it is because of time compression, youth, or both?), but the hijinks seem forced. If you like seeing Kurt Russell doing his earnest Disney youth thing, if you like seeing luminaries like TV's Joe Flynn and Dick Van Patten, if you like seeing Bob Crane made an ass of, if you like the idea of a knockdown, drag-out brawl between Crane and a pretentious artist in his waterfront shack...well, than you'll like "Superdad."

Yet I felt more creeped out than entertained when watching this. I just couldn't shake that feeling, and I think if I tried to explain why, it would come down to the following 5 reasons:

5) Bob Crane played the dad.

4) Just the general notion of a middle-aged man hanging out with his teenage daughter and her friends in order to understand her, or whatever the hell he said he was trying to do, even though this plot element is discarded early on, is unsettling...especially when the middle-aged man is Bob Crane.

3) Bob Crane played the dad.

2) Some of the hairstyles and fashions...but really only because Bob Crane was in the movie.

1) The sappy Bobby Goldsboro theme song, accompanied by thoughtful shots of life on the beach under the credits. Come to think of it, this really only goes from cheesy to creepy because you know Bob Crane is the star of the movie you're settling in to see.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

5Q Movie Review: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths

Q: Ooh, the word "Crisis" means this is full of Earth 2, the Justice Society of America, Monitors, and serves as an adaptation of the comic series "Crisis on Infinite Earths," "Identity Crisis," and/or "Infinite Crisis," right?
A: Uh, no. It does offer parallel worlds, a key concept in the DC Comics universe which is prominent in many of its biggest events. But this direct-to-video animated feature focuses on a set of villains called the Crime Syndicate, composed of alternate versions of the flagship DC superheroes. So don't be disappointed that this story doesn't adapt those other stories or feature the JSA. Or be disappointed (like I was), but just don't be surprised.

Q: If I didn't understand a word of that first question except "right," am I going to be totally lost watching this?
A: No, or at least not any more so than the rest of us. There are a good number of plot holes and ideas and elements that are wild even by comic book standards, but the screenplay explains enough so that you can follow along without problem as long as you don't have a Crisis of Disbelief. And this is in many ways a "Justice League" cartoon, though not nearly as good as the excellent, much missed TV series. Supes, Bats, Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and a roster of guest stars fight bad guys. What more do you need to know?

Q: How does this stack up to recent DC Animated features?
A: As I said, the story strains credibility, but not as much as the recent "Superman/Batman Public Enemies." This one also offers some great fight scenes, though not quite as many, and many are quite well designed, though Green Lantern looks like a chump when his ring-wielding counterpart conceives different shapes but GL keeps making big green fists to punch stuff. Speaking of GL, "Crisis" is also an improvement of "First Flight," but not up to the level of "Wonder Woman" or "New Frontier." In short, comic book fans and Justice League fans should enjoy this if they can get past the casting.

Q: Does the voice casting work?
A: Most of it is fine, but, oh, how some of it makes you wish they just used the usual suspects from the TV show. Woods is great, and Gina Torres does good work, too, as his partner (and I DO mean partner--RROWR!). Chris Noth is effective as a different kind of Lex Luthor. But the JLA is only as good as its big guns, and Mark Harmon is all wrong as Superman.

Even more distracting and off-putting, though--and that's saying something--is William Baldwin as Batman. Calling yourself "William" does not in and of itself confer screen presence. No matter what kind of solutions Batman comes up with against the villains, no matter how ingenious his tactics, as soon as I hear that voice, this Caped Crusader's IQ seems to plummet.

Q: The DVD is loaded with extras, right? Are they worthwhile?
A: Well, I hear there's a cool animated short featuring the Spectre, a documentary, some "Justice League" episodes, and a few live-action superhero pilots. I hear 'em, but I don't see 'em, because Netflix isn't offering the bonus disc despite bowing down to almighty Warner Brothers and agreeing to delay renting this movie for a month. And you know my motto: If I can't rent it, I ain't buyin' it, neither. Maybe I should add a "nohow" in there somewhere, but you get my drift.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Journey Into DVD: Gang Busters Volume 1

I'm sure glad I enjoyed this DVD because, oh, what an epic adventure it was getting a playable disc from Netflix.

Now, I may see a glitch or two on one of their rental DVDs every now and then, but they generally aren't so bad as to require a replacement. So I was suprised just before last month's Blizzardpalooza when I got a disc of the 1950s crime show "Gang Busters" which was not just unplayable, but unHOLDable. I mean, the thing was in 3 pieces.

I had to wait a few days for the replacement given the weather, and then when my mailma--uh, letter carrier arrived, I had to help him dig out access to our mailbox because of the Great Wall of snow and ice the plows and some of my neighbors had amassed. I handed him the bad one and took the sub. Later, after a whole lot more shoveling, I opened the new enevelope and found that Netflix had indeed sent me a different disc.

This one was in 4 pieces.

What are the odds of this happening? Big. Big, big odds. I thought Netflix would brand me a serial destroyer of their merchandise. "This guy HATES Gang Busters! Flag his account!"

Netflix was great about this, though, and even sent me a few bonuses discs while I waited for the second replacement. After all this, I sure hoped "Gang Busters" was worth it. More importantly, I sure appreciated that it was a 1950s TV show I was trying to rent and not something like "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Strippercise Workout." THAT would have been a fun title to repeat to the customer service guy.

I finally did get an intact copy, though, and fortunately, it was almost worth the wait (hey, I know it's not end-of-the-world-type stuff here, but that kind of hassle would only be worth it if the DVD contained lost Honeymooners footage or a montage of towering Ralph Kiner home runs or footage of my appearance in a production of "The Jungle Book" in elementary school).

Based on the vintage radio program, "Gang Busters" has one of the great opening sequences in TV history. We look through the barrel of a gun as it pivots toward us, followed by a frantic mix of animation and stock footage showing a searchlight atop an island scanning the ocean, convicts busting out of jail, cops firing guns...the whole thing is so much fun, you sit there and think, "Can the show possibly be as good as all this?"

Well, no, it can't, but it can be mighty entertaining for each half-hour or so. These episodes feature the show's original gimmick of a "real-life law enforcement official" introducing and narrating a specific case from his CRIME FILES. Then we get a nice little reenactment of the crime and manhunt (sometimes womanhunt). It's a fun show. Ultimately, crime doesn't pay and all that, but the series does seem to focus on the criminals as much as on the coppers. This particular disc offered a "Detour" reunion of sorts in "The Red Dress," which co-stars Tom Neal and Ann Savage in a suitably sordid tale.

Netflix stocks a Volume 2, but I'm almost afraid to ask for it. I did have success, though, with "Guns Don't Argue," a worthwhile but sloppily assembled feature-length collection of "Gang Busters" episodes spotlighting the "Public Enemies" of the thirties like John Dillinger and Alvin Karpis. It's pretty loose with the facts, but you shouldn't be expecting a documentary.

"Gang Busters" is a decent vintage crime show, one which merits further DVDs--and I don't mean breaking up existing ones into pieces to make multiples, either. Say, I wonder who IS out there busting 'Gang Busters" DVDs? If the show presented that case, the guy would be pursued and arrested or possibly gunned down within 25 minutes.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

First Impulse: Meet Captain America

Yesterday we learned the identity of Captain America: Chris Evans.

Of course, we already met Chris Evans, perhaps most notably as the Human Torch in the weak "Fantastic Four" movies. Evans failed to stand out in those subpar efforts; in fact, I found his cocky hotshot (sorry) routine generic. He may have been told to just add some energy to the movie, but I kind of just thought of him as some kind of shallow WB Network type.

So, yeah, if I go see "Captain America"--and while I like the character and the comics, I'll be skeptical based on the majority of recent superhero movies--it won't be because of Chris Evans.

Currently, the comic character (the classic version, at least) is an icon of the Marvel universe, a moral compass, someone other superheroes look to for inspiration if not outright guidance. Cap is not just a patriotic symbol, but a real leader. He has, in short, gravitas. I consider it a safe bet that nowhere has Chris Evans been said to have gravitas. Therefore I guess we can assume they're going with a young Captain America, which I suppose is OK--Cap wasn't always the seasoned vet he is now--but it also means another boring origin type of movie. This origin has been rehashed too many times in the comics themselves lately, and I don't really want to see it on screen.

There's another aspect of this casting news that concerns me. Evans already plays the Human Torch. Yes, actors can play different roles, and, yes, they're only roles, but still, it seems like a real lack of imagination and talent in Hollywood. I'm not so upset about the fact that now we can't see Captain America and the modern Human Torch interact in a crossover movie as I am that we are apparently so lacking in solid male acting talent that the same guys are coming up for the same roles. The most prominent example is Ryan Reynolds, who somehow became both Deadpool and Green Lantern.

It's a sad day for Hollywood. Where have all the real men go? I mean, I know the current generation of young male actors was lacking, but this is sad. The scene is so barren that Chris Evans and Ryan Reynolds, neither of whom summon thoughts of John Wayne, are headlining multiple franchise movies. We need an influx of charisma, pronto.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

This Week in DVD

The African Queen: Finally! This isn't even in my Top 10 of Bogart pictures, probably, but there's no doubt a movie so beloved and notable should be on DVD. Paramount finally delivers it this week. See? The format is not dead for catalogue titles after all. I'm sure Paramount has all sorts of other titles raring to go that they've been restoring for the last 10 years.

The Blind Side: So now Sandra Bullock, having been blindsided, gets to send that Michael Oehr to Jesse James' garage to squash him like a bug, as I understand it.

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Whimsy may well suit Wes Anderson better in cartoon form now. At least they never run his annoying American Express ad anymore.

Brothers: It saddens me that a Jim Sheridan movie can be so thoroughly ignored by the public. What's wrong with you people? What's that you ask? Am I gonna rent this? Uh...well, maybe after I see "Fantastic Mr. Fox."

The Men Who Stare at Goats: From what I read, this is either the stupidest movie of 2009 or just a really stupid movie that came out in 2009. I don't think there are too many people calling this an overlooked gem.

The T.A.M.I. Show: I actually saw this on PBS a few weeks ago, so I'll have to take the imaginary money I was going to use to pretend to buy the DVD and make an imaginary pledge to my local station.

Phantom Punch: Hey, a 2008 Sonny Liston biopic starring Ving Rhames sounds pretty good. I don't know whether I missed it, the world totally missed it, or I totally forgot about it, but this may require further investigation.

Hotel California: Look at this description from Netflix:

Two years after betraying a crime lord, drug smuggler Troy (Erik Palladino) returns to Los Angeles with one leg, a hefty cocaine habit and a thirst for revenge. He soon reunites with his old partners Pete (Simon Rex) and Al (Tyson Beckford), whose loyalties remain unclear. The trio's complicated history -- and that of Troy's ex-girlfriend Jessie (Tatyana Ali) -- unfolds in explosive flashbacks in this intense indie noir.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the worst cast ever assembled for an alleged "noir." Thinking of a wanna-be noir starring Dr. Dave from ER, SUPERMODEL Tyson Beckford, and Simon Rex, makes me want to swear off movies for a while.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Panel Discussion: Barry Allen, World's Lamest Date

Believe it or not, to me, the funniest scene in Flash #111's "Invasion of the Cloud Creatures" (reprinted in Showcase Presents: The Flash Volume 1) does not depict the titular villains, even though...well, see for yourself:

Yes, Flash's epic struggle against these fearsome menaces makes for an entertaining and amusing yarn. But let's go back to the beginning of the story, when we get another fine example of Barry Allen, Silver Age Playa:

Next time you're on a date with your lady friend, fellas, why not try this ol' bait-and-switch? Let her get all gussied-up, don your own best formal duds, but then, at the last possible instant, surprise her by taking her to an academic lecture, instead! You can always tell her, "You'll like this better--believe me!" After all, you know best, right?

Just look at how thrilled Iris is:

Isn't this better than some stupid old night of dancing you promised her for 3 months? Of course it is! You'll see!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Brooks on Books: Baseball Americana

To describe this book, I am going to use a word which could be considered rather unmanly in a context other than describing a "dame." Yes, folks, "Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library Congress" is...gorgeous.

This collection of photos, ephemera, and mementos from the collection of the Library of Congress is spectacular. It's large enough to show off the pictures but not so large it's unwieldy. It's printed on quality paper with attractive design. But most importantly, the content is just fantastic.

This book functions as a nice general history of the sport as well as a showcase for the collection. It's arranged chronologically, taking us from the murky beginnings of the game (and doing a good job of debunking some previously accepted myths and trying to straighten out some of the origins) up to the present, using the reproductions of various items to illustrate the narrative. There are sidebar sections on subtopics like women in baseball, wartime baseball, and baseball in early motion pictures.

Both novice and hardcore fans will find plenty of interest here. Even if you don't want to read the text, it's fun to just browse through the book and look at the stuff: vintage photos of major league action, old posters advertising games, baseball cards, lithographs, magazine cartoons, movie lobby cards, sheet music, comic book reproductions--look, I can describe this stuff, but you really just have to pick it up and look at it it to appreciate it.

I wish the book covered a little bit more of the seventies and eighties, as I collected a lot of memorabilia from that era as a kid and it interests me more than the 19th century, but that's about the only change I'd suggest. There are all sorts of things to enjoy here, including many surprises. And it's not just a celebration of major league baseball, but of the sport itself. One of my favorite illustrations is near the beginning of the book, a two-page spread consisting of several lads playing some variation of the game at 113th Street in Harlem in 1954. It looks like they're playing in some trash-strewn vacant lot between buildings, with tenements visible around them. On a brick side of the building, you see painted, next to a "NO DUMPING" notice, the words "Boy's Stadium." It captures that urban aspect of the game you might forget about unless you read a lot of Larry King--kids in the city just finding a place to play and doing it.

There is a lot of material in here to suggest the pastoral aspects of baseball, too, but don't worry, the text doesn't stray too far into the mythological, "Baseball is Heaven" stuff you see elsewhere. "Baseball Americana" is content telling the story of the game and presenting this wonderful memorabilia. It's an outstanding--and gorgeous--book.

Friday, March 19, 2010

This Week in DVD

Twilight: New Moon: It's tonight! Tonight, it's finally here! OMG! OK, I shouldn't mock this one. If you're into it, here you go. I'm on Team Uninterested.

The Princess and the Frog: Disney's much-anticipated return to hand-drawn animation was a smashing success. Except that it wasn't entirely hand-drawn. And except that it did OK but fell sort of recent computer-animated smashes. But other than that...Hey, me, I really want to see this one, and, no, I don't collect Disney Princesses.

Astro Boy: Why is it every few weeks, a DVD comes out of a movie of which I have no memory of it being in theaters? And why is it most of those movies star Nicolas Cage?

Armored: I know very little about this promising but unheralded heist movie, so let me offer a great line from DVD Talk reviewer Brian Orndorf:

Antal keeps the brew bubbling agreeably, with the aid of some splendid actors (Fishburne, Reno), good actors (Dillon, Short, and Ventimiglia),, actors (Skeet Ulrich and Amaury Nolasco, playing the fraidy cats of the guard pack) to communicate the hysteria.

Did You Hear about the Morgans: Now I feel really ashamed for making fun of "Twilight." At least the people that buy that have their reasons. I can't think of a single thing that would justify paying money for a movie that teams Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker, and I would eye a rental with skepticism, too. Nobody wants to see Parker unless she's Carrie Bradshaw; as for Grant, how can a guy seemingly so charming and funny star in so many bad movies?

The Fourth Kind: There's the great kind of movie, the good kind of movie, the "Just OK" kind of movie, and...

MST3k Vol. XVII: Another set of 4 episodes from Shout Factory. Keep 'em coming, folks. Keep 'em coming.

Hawaii Five-O Season 8: Does anyone think that upcoming remake will last anywhere near 8 seasons? Why am I asking so many questions this week?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Jack Bauer, you're driving me crazy

I don't know if he's always done this, but Jack Bauer has really been driving me crazy the last couple weeks on "24." The "Jack Bauer Power Hour" begins each week with a recap of the day's events to date, followed by Jack's voice-over telling us when the following events take place.

Here's the thing: He'll say, "The following events take place between the hours of 1:00 AM and 2:00 AM." When you read it, no big deal, right? But he emphasizes the wrong part. He really says, "the hours of 1:00 AM and 2:00 AM," emphasizing the "AM." But why? The AM part isn't different in that phrase. He's established we're in the AM with the 1:00 bit. He SHOULD be saying, "the hours of 1:00 AM and 2:00 AM." It just sounds totally wrong the way he's done it the past several episodes.

Oh, Jack Bauer, you are expert at wielding intimidating threats, sharp instruments, and electrical charges, but your most devious and effective method of torture is this voice-over. I'll tell you anything you need to know--just emphasize the right word next week!

Vault of Coolness: Ayyyyy!

Need I say more? Maybe just a few words...

I found this little item in a memorabilia store in December. The only question I have about this cover is why someone wanted to put character names like Billy Budd and Butchy Weinstein in such a prominent spot.

Did Winkler's "people" demand that non-Fonzie roles get a cover mention? I dunno.

Can we still enjoy this awesome cover? Exactumundo!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Wonderful World of TCM: Women's pictures

Ann Carver's Profession (1933): Anytime I see a title like this and the movie is from anywhere near the Pre-Code era, I think, you guessed it, prostitution.

Well, sorry to disappoint (hey, I know I was kind of bummed), but Ann Carver's profession is one slightly more reputable: attorney. She's a darned good one, too--attorney--and rises quickly. There is some rather racy material here, too. In one memorable sequence, the shrewd Carver, played with gusto and credibility by Fay Wray, defends her client in a breach of promise suit by attempting to prove to the jury that there was no way the defendant could have known the plaintiff was black! It's a remarkable thing to watch. Oh, so wrong, yes, with all its racial implications, but amazing.

The heart of this tale, though is Carver's marriage to former football star turned second fiddle to his wife Bill Graham (played by Gene Raymond). As Ann becomes more and more successful, Bill becomes more and more pouty, and it's interesting to see the guy acting petulant not just because his wife is working--this happened all the time in movies of the era--but because he feels overshadowed, neglectful, and inadequate. Hmm, I guess this happened all the time back then, too.

The couple splits, but things take an interesting turn when Bill is accused of murder. Will Ann defend him, even if that makes little sense for a variety of reasons? You'll just have to watch, but fear not, the movie takes the entertaining path here. It's a fun movie highlighted by Wray's self-assured, confident, independent character--uh, just ignore her little "affirm prevailing values" speech at the end.

Four Daughters (1938): Claude Rains is a blustery but bighearted widower raising 6 daughters--no, I kid, it's 4 daughters. The ladies are charming, and the mix of melodrama and some light comedy goes down smoothly.

One thing becomes evident quickly: John Garfield was a movie star, and a helluva lot more charismatic than the likes of Jeffrey Lynn and Frank McHugh. Not to dis those guys, but the young Garfield must have really blown them off screen to audiences in 1938. Even though his character has kind of an Eeyore-like attitude about the world's treatment of himself, he is still the most interesting thing in the movie, especially since Rains' role is sparse and he shares screen time with the most luminous of the Daughters, Priscilla Lane.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, "Four Daughters" is professional entertainment delivered by Warner Brothers. I mainly saw this because some time ago I saw a good chunk of "Four Wives." I think TCM shows this one more often than the sequels, "Wives" and "Four Mothers," but I hadn't gotten around to seeing it yet. Now I have an enjoyed it enough, so bring on the others.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Brooks on Books: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. I wanted to love this book, the way I loved Vowell's previous "Assassination Vacation." That one was a wonderful blend of travelogue, history, and Vowell's own insights and quirks. I had trouble putting it down.

Unfortunately, "Shipmates" is just nowhere near as enthralling. Vowell is still an amusing writer, of course, and it's fun to read why she is so "into" the Puritans--she feels connected to them because of their love of literacy and learning--but it doesn't produce as compelling a read. I think the big factor here is that, much as Vowell strains to make them so, this cast of characters just isn't as interesting as the nutball assassins and presidents in "Vacation." Plus there is less of Vowell the traveling history buff in here, and I miss that.

This is not the story of the Mayflower, mind you, but of the Puritans who sailed across the Atlantic in 1630 led by John Winthrop. Other key figures in the book include Roger Williams, eventual founder of Providence; and passionate settler Anne Hutchinson. Vowell does a good job of detailing the religious conflicts between these individuals; she is less effective at drawing parallels to modern society. Her analysis of how Winthrop's famous "city on the hill" sermon was later appropriated by Ronald Reagan, along with how America became an interventionist imperial power, is interesting. But early in the book, she goes on an extended rant about U.S. involvement in Iraq, and while her stance isn't surprising, the section is a little jarring in this context. Hardcore Bush supporters will be turned off fairly early.

It's Vowell's ability to inject her own spirited feelings and love of history into material like this, though, that makes "Vacation" so awesome and "Shipmates" less so but still worthwhile. don't get me wrong; this is merely a 2.5 star-3 star book instead of a 4-star book, but it still has its virtues. I might have liked it more had I read it first.

There are some laughs, some clever pop culture references, and some poignant personal history, such as when she talks about her Cherokee ancestors' suffering on the Trail of Tears. She does her best with these Puritans, but at least to me, she just can't make them stand out as great personalities. "Shipmates" is fine at its relatively short page count; just don't expect anything like its predecessor.

Friday, March 12, 2010

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

I got behind in reading--er, I mean posting these tidbits that my wife gets, but that's OK because "People" got even with us by not sending us--I mean her--an issue for the past two weeks.

But important NEWS and FACTS never go out of date, so here is a roundup of some vital poop from recent issues.

ITEM: Claire Danes went as a refrigerator for Halloween. Making costumes for the holiday is her "Random Hobby," according to the back-page feature "6 Revelations from..." This feature is a godsend for all of us who long dreamed "People" could somehow cram even more valuable insight into its pages.

And how did she make her fridge costume? She wore all white and put magnets all over herself. Sounds like she didn't miss too much time on the set while putting that one together.

ITEM: "Jersey Shore" "star" Snooki "tells Scoop exclusively that she's 'very, very happy' with Emilio Masella." Scoop, of course, is "People's" front-of-the mag repository for INSIDER INFO! Boy, is it ever! Well, now we know. Snooki is very, very happy!

ITEM: Charlize Theron is moving on! She "hasn't looked back" since splitting from longtime beau Stuart Townsend. In fact, according to the mag, "She's hit the gym, lunched with pals, and spent a night on the town with old friend Jeremy Renner." That she's done these activities clearly demonstrates she has put that 9-year relationship behind her!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

This Week in DVD

You know what makes this special Post-Oscar installment of "This Week in DVD" so special? Why, the fact that it's after the Oscars!

Up in the Air: True story--I intended to see this in a theater with my wife and then...didn't get around to it. Man, I gotta come up with a better ending to that story. But the way people talk about how great George Clooney is, it's only a matter of time before he starts picking people up at their houses and personally buying their tickets to his films. He's just that nice a guy.

Precious: I have to admit, I just don't want to see this movie despite its acclaim, and, yes, part of it is due to some deep prejudices on my part. I think many others feel the same way, that there's something shown on the screen in this movie that we just don't really want to see. I'm gonna go ahead and mention the elephant in the room here, because let's face it, we all are a little hesitant to actually have to watch Mariah Carey without makeup.

Old Dogs: We caught an episode of "Desperate Housewives" on demand one time and could not fast-forward through the commercials, or I should say commercial, singular, because all we saw was the same stupid spot hyping "Old Dogs." Over and over and over again. To say we got sick of "Old Dogs" that night would be an understatement. I doubt anything is understated in "Old Dogs."

Hachi: A Dog's Tale: I know very little about this direct-to-video story, but I know enough to think I'll start blubbering like Chad Lowe at the Oscars if I sit down and watch it.

Planet 51: Let's just say this one did NOT make the Best Animated Feature roster this year.

Capitalism: A Love Story: Can I say anything one way or the other about a Michael Moore movie without getting into some kind of political imbroglio? Yeah, probably, but since I haven't even seen it, why bother?

Matt Houston Season 1 and Scarecrow and Mrs. King Season 1: As a kid, I always thought Lee Horsley/Matt Houston was the poor man's Tom Selleck/Magnum, and as for "Scarecrow," well, I probably would have laughed if anyone I knew watched it. But I've grown and matured enough to salute those fans of these shows and hope they have a good time with their new DVDs this week.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

5Q Movie Review: (500) Days of Summer

Q: This movie is completely different from any romantic comedy that ever came before it, right?I mean, it's indie, fresh, and daring, correct?

A: Not quite. Despite the rep and the indie cred, take away the time-fracturing gimmick, and this is in many ways--probably most ways--a fairly conventional romantic comedy. It's well done, but some of the quirkier aspects of Tom and Summer's relationship are counteracted by some remarkably square sitcomesque punchlines and situations.

Q: Wait a minute, the lead character's NAME is Summer? That and the parentheses in the title makes me worry--is this movie too cutesy for its own good?

A: I worried myself, but don't let the 500 Days of Summer (heh heh) thing get to you. Despite some of its excesses in quirk--like breaking the wall and staging a big musical number complete with an animated bluebird--there is ultimately real feeling in this movie. Simply put, it gets you and stays there. It's funny, sad, moving, and the ending is a little cutesy but feels earned and appropriate.

Q: Isn't there a big time-distorting gimmick at the center of this one? Is it effective or just confusing?

A: Yes, instead of a straight chronological narrative of this relationship between two young lovers, we see a day here, then a day many days ahead, then a day just after the beginning, etc. The jumping around could be distracting or could be used to hide a weaker story, but it does work here. Instead of feeling like a cheap gimmick, it reveals some real emotional truths as we, for example, see a glimpse of one day, then come back and see more of it after learning more about the two characters. It's to director Marc Webb's credit that the gimmick is indeed effective.

Q: What about the leads? DO Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel have good chemistry?

A: JGL is excellent in this one. He's impressed me with some of his other roles lately, and here he does a good job of making a guy sympathetic even though at times he's kind of, well, PA-thetic. He is a romantic searching for a soulmate, and that's fine, but the way he moons over Deschanel is a little much, even if you DO find her more charming than I do. I didn't find all her so special, frankly. Now, the way I react to these characters is, of course, in large part due to the screenplay, and Deschanel in particular is hamstrung somewhat by a script that makes her--hey, her's that part I mentioned earlier about something that makes this romantic comedy unique.

Q: OK, I'll bite. What IS so unique about this romantic comedy?

A: There may be some mild SPOILAGE here, so look out.

OK, one thing I find interesting about "(500) Days" is that the female half of the equation is totally in the wrong! She looks like a real jerk through much of the movie, which makes it difficult not to root for/side with Tom. Granted, we're seeing things from Tom's point of view, but there is little effort to explain Summer or to make her a balanced character. It's kind of odd, but kind of refreshing in a weird way, and it gives a viewer (or at least me) kind of a nice surprise compared to expectations.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

First Impulse: The Oscars

Whether it's because I don't go out and see the movies like I used to, because of the increasing sense of sameness I get from the telecast, or because I'm slowly turning into a bitter old crank, I get less joy out of the Academy Awards each year. I did see the whole broadcast this year, as always, but I had my laptop at the ready so that during the dull patches--and there were many--I could...uh, do things besides blogging, which I now realize I should have been doing.

There weren't a whole lot of embarrassing moments, but much of the show just didn't work for me. Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin were OK as hosts, but didn't seem to have much impact after the monologue. Is that good or bad? I don't think the host matters that much anymore unless he or she (by "she" I mean Whoopi, of course) is a disaster.

Instead of going through the show and the awards (I was neutral on most of the categories, but I was happy to see Sandra Bullock won and enjoyed her heartfelt speech), let me be semi-constructive and propose the Academy and whoever runs next year's show get rid of the following elements:

*Big opening production numbers: Don't feel you owe us one. We'll be fine if you just go into a monologue...or even break the tension by giving out an award really quick. Seriously, begin the show with a lightning-fast presentation like the one Tom Hanks gave for Best Picture (the guy hasn't moved so fast since he was staying at the Susan B. Anthony hotel and had to scramble into his pantyhose), then go into the hubbub. Why not?

*Interpretive dance numbers: So the producers get rid of the Best Song performances, which people often enjoy, but insist on presenting an interminable series of dance routines "interpreting" the nominated musical scores. Year after year, someone behind the scenes thinks the audience needs some kind of dance number. Year after year, the number is mocked. Here's an easy way to speed up the show--no dance! And if you want to stage a "Footloose"-like rebellion the next year, bring it on.

*Introductions/clips of the Best Picture nominees: Especially now that there are *10* of them, each of these segments brings the show to a crawl. I realize that in a sense the purpose of the Oscars is to sell movies, but by the time the show's on, I know everything I need to know about the Best Picture choices. I don't need an actor to tell me how great it was and then, worse, show a clip. Save the clips for the actual moment of handing out the trophy (not to mention all the bits we see throughout the night in the other categories). Judging from this year's roster, it's not like the show is bursting with huge stars that need places on the show.

*Tribute segments: Not to disparage John Hughes, but I was annoyed that the Lifetime Achievement awards got shoved off camera while this segment got, what, 10 minutes? And please, enough with the "Salute to Horror" type montages. The history of the movies can be celebrated by giving out the lifetime awards again. And I hate to say this, but the In Memoriam feature may not be worth doing at this point if nobody can do it right.

*Actors and actresses kissing each other's asses: The whole "actors introduce the nominees" thing was nice last year as a fresh twist, but this year it seemed bogus. There just isn't a need to do this each year, and it gets awkward seeing all of the presenters pile it on so thick. Then it gets even more awkward when they don't, like Colin Farrell introducing Jeremy Renner: "I met Jeremy on a movie called SWAT. It was cool. It's about fookin' time he got a good part." Let's retire this.

*Barbra Streisand: Why not bump HER off camera and let her host the technical awards or something? At least don't give her a high-profile slot like presenting Best Director, thereby giving her a chance to act like she's some kind of big-shot director herself.

Removing these elements would be a great start toward making a better, crisper, and yes, shorter telecast. With the exception of maybe the ass-kissing presentation gimmick, I don't know too many people who would bemoan the loss of anything on this list.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Brooks on Books: Football books with attitude

"Namath" by Mark Kriegel and "Long Bomb" by Brett Forrest are two outstanding pro football books, each well-written and packed with vivid details. author Each might put off some readers, though, with his style. Both Kriegel and Forrest assume kind of a tough guy, or at least tough journalist, posture, writing as a streetwise observer who tells it like it is. Neither man is afraid to drop an f-bomb or an s-bomb every now and then, either.

This kind of approach can be tiresome in the hands of the wrong author, but Kriegel and Forrest pull it off with great success. Kriegel's bio, "Namath" sports a bunch of negative reviews on Amazon, with some chiding it for trashing Broadway Joe. I suspect a lot of the bad feedback is due to the writing style and the profanity.

The book itself can hardly be called a hatchet job. Yes, Namath comes off as emotionally distant, a little egocentric, and--as Kriegel constantly calls him--"a hustler." But he doesn't always mean "hustler" in a negative way, and he points out how so many other people and institutions in Namath's life are also part of the hustle. More importantly, "Namath" the book relates with overwhelming force how talented Namath the quarterback was, how charismatic he was, and how flat-out physically tough he was. The reader gets a sense of sadness at how Namath was apparently scarred by the nasty dissolution of his parents' marriage when he was youth, but ultimately Namath finds happiness in the narrative of his life as a devoted, loving dad seemingly at peace with himself.

The lingering sadness you get from "Namath" has nothing to do with the subject's alcohol use, womanizing, or associations with gamblers (actually, those are all fun topics), but rather with the "What might have been?" aspect of the Hall of Fame career. After hurting himself at Alabama, Namath was never the same, and he became a pro superstar and legendary Super Bowl guarantee-man (and victor) on battered knees, ankles, and just about everything else. Kriegel's biography helps you appreciate how Joe overcame all the injuries to become a winner. It's overall a flattering portrait of the football immortal, and better yet, it's an insightful, compelling read.

"Long Bomb" is subtitled "How the XFL Became TV's Biggest Fiasco," and though you might be trying to forget Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol's 2001 disaster of a football league, it's worth going through all the gory details in this funny, incisive breakdown of the whole deal. The XFL embarrassed not just the WWF (now WWE) and NBC, but it seemed to irk the whole "respectable" sports community and established media. Forrest explains how the league might have had a decent idea or two, but it overreached through a combination of hubris, impulsiveness, and good old-fashioned incompetence.

There are plenty of examples of the incompetence, and Forrest pulls no punches in describing them. The first sentence begins, "The hacks who write the World Wrestling Federation..." Later he describes WWE executive Linda McMahon:

"She was friendly. She was humble. She was gracious. She was full of shit. Not completely full of shit. But there was enough of a cubic-zirconia twinkle in her eye, a static HAL lamp, a register: POWER ON."

That passage sums up Forrest's approach and style pretty well. He's tough, even a little mean sometimes, and he offers up a no-BS stance from a guy willing and probably eager to call out divas like McMahon, NBC Sports honcho Ebersol, and even peripheral figures in the saga like Lorne Michaels (who throws a hissy fit at NBC when week 2's game runs over and delays "Saturday Night Live," forcing changes to ensure no overruns). This isn't a detached, dignified straight telling of a sports/media/business story. You will be aware of the author on just about every page of this book, although the longer it goes, the less prominent the style is. Forrest is talented enough to pull this off, though, and I'd gladly read more of his books (unfortunately, there aren't any, according to Amazon).

Forrest had zero cooperation from some of the principles in the creation and operation of the league, but he had great access to the Las Vegas Outlaws team during that inaugural (and only) season, and he gets telling profiles of players like the notorious He Hate Me, AKA Rod Smart. He skillfully weaves these profiles and sharply observed accounts of the games and the telecasts into the broader narrative of the rise and fall of the XFL.

Well, actually, it's more like the Fall and Plunge of the XFL, but Forrest does point out some wasted opportunities. The league did draw a strong first-week audience. There were some talented people involved behind the scenes. There were fans willing to watch non-NFL football, and some of the TV economics might have made sense under different circumstances.

Under the actual circumstances, though, the XFL was doomed almost from the get-go. "Long Bomb" is a funny and pungent account of a notorious flop, and even if you've tried to forget it, it's worth revisiting in this book.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Wanted: a better movie

I recently caught "Wanted" on HBO On Demand, so I wasn't too bent out of shape about being so disappointed. The thing that got me was, why did I think it would be good in the first place? I remember seeing the trailers during its theatrical run and kind of buying into everything.

That was back in the days (two whole years ago) before I realized that just because I liked comic books and I like movies is no reason to presume I would enjoy a comic book movie. Quite the contrary, actually; most comic book movies in the last several years are big disappointments. I never read the comic that "Wanted" is based on, but I can kind of see how it would work in print: cool ideas, striking visuals, suspension of disbelief. In movie form, it just boils down to director Timur Bekmambetov saying, "Hey, look at all the neat ways I can shoot a bullet coming out of a gun."

And most of those shots do look cool, but they don't really mean much, or else they "mean" something in the sense of, "OK, audience, pay attention to this stunt now because it'll pay off later when we come back to it!" The slow motion, the cinematography, just the whole style of it is flashy but to little impact (unless maybe you're watching it on something other than my modest low-def TV), and this is assuming you're not sitting there yawning, "Eh..."Matrix."

"Wanted" shows us the journey of a schlub played by James McAvoy as he gets sucked into a secret society of assassins with extraordinary skills and knowledge. Perhaps the biggest problem with "Wanted" is it spends way too much time on the journey and the sucking in. We're supposed to identify with his transformation from disrespected office drone to hit man. It might play off as a decent adolescent comic book revenge fantasy (and I mean no condescension when I use the word "adolescent"), but here it plays out like a drawn-out comic book origin story, the likes of which we've see all too often in recent years.

As for me, I've given up on being anything but a schlub, so for me it's far more interesting seeing the fantasy world itself than living vicariously through one guy's entry into it. How does this society work? What is the history of this group and its battles? Some answers are given, but the narrative could--should--spend a lot more time in establishing and exploring this hidden world.

Then there's Angelina Jolie. She looked good in the trailers, but while watching the film, I couldn't help but wonder what happened. It wasn't so long ago that she made a convincing Lara Croft in the "Tomb Raider" movies. Say what you will about those, but Jolie herself was sexy, bad-ass, and credible even while affecting that accent. I would have knocked a guy over just to get a one-sheet poster from one of those flicks (You know, I did work at a movie theater, and I'm pretty sure I did). In "Wanted," Jolie looks thinner, worn, and uninvolved. Her character, Fox, is supposed to be detached, but there's something else going on here. She just isn't credible in this kind of role anymore and comes off like a poser.

Then there's Morgan Freeman. I've been hoping for a while he'd get a big, juicy part in a comic book movie, something more weighty than his supporting role in the Batman series, but this isn't satisfying. By the time he gets his big scenes near the end, it's clear Freeman isn't giving 100%--or we don't seem to be getting it. I don't want to besmirch a veteran with so much talent. Maybe he realizes the plot twists are telegraphed and/or nonsensical so it's hard for the audience to get involved on a story level, but it feels like cruise control.

Really, "Wanted" isn't "about" story. It's about stringing together a bunch of individual scenes and stunts that look good on paper, and maybe even kind of cool on screen. But it's all posturing, trying to be cool without ever becoming cool, and it's an empty experience without the kind of thrills that might make it at least a worthwhile popcorn movie.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

This Week in DVD

2012: It's the end of the world, baby! That line is never uttered in "2012," as far as I know, but it was used in a great episode of "Suspense Theatre" my dad and I watched on RTN over the holidays, and I've been meaning to use it ever since.

The Box: This movie garnered some of the worst reviews of 2009 despite having a pretty good premise...for a half-hour TV show episode.

Where the Wild Things Are: I never noticed how many Warner Brothers movies I wanted to see till they put that stupid 30-day rental delay into effect with Netflix and Redbox. Wherever the Wild Things are, they won't be in my house until April, I guess.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee: Wasn't this supposed to be an Oscar bait movie for Robin Wright Penn? It just disappeared. In retrospect, Oscar bait that stars Keanu Reeves and has the name "Pippa" in the title should not really be considered Oscar bait.

Alice in Wonderland (1933): This Paramount version of the classic story, replete with an All-Star cast including Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields, is out this week. OK, so now you know and I know. Will someone let Netflix know? They're not carrying it yet.

Have Gun Will Travel Season 4 Part 1: After a long gap and a fiasco with some third-season sets with major production flaws going on sale at Amazon (never did get a definitive answer on what happened there, but it was enough to keep me from buying that season), CBS Paramount throws fans a bone with HALF of the next more than half the cost, I might add.

Matlock Season 4: By the time Paramount finishes "HGWT," I'll be old enough to watch this show.

Brooks on Books: Wrapping up football

It's just about time for baseball season, so this week it's time to wrap up pro football with thoughts on a trio of books I read this past month. I'll start today with, well, the least of the 3:

Inside the NFL: Total Access by Rich Eisen: I had low expectations for this effort from the former "SportsCenter" anchor and current host of NFL Network's flagship program, "Total Access." When I saw "Kukla" of "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie" spelled wrong in NFL Films maven Steve Sabol's foreword, I really worried I was facing a slapdash, sloppy product.

Eisen's book is not a revealing or deep one, but it is entertaining, and it's a lot less sloppy than occasional typos like misspelling Brant Gumbel's name in a photo caption might indicate. Eisen comes off as a rather starstruck guy living out a dream just being associated with the game. Well, not just the game--the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE. He seems a little too deferential when mentioning people like Roger Goodell--I can understand being excited to interview George H.W. Bush and Mick Jagger, but Goodell? So you have to accept the reverent tone and the worshipful attitude about the NFL.

But if that's OK with you, Eisen's look at his job through the course of the NFL calendar--from Super Bowl Week to the Combine to the Draft, etc.--is a fun read. I did learn some new things about the league and how it works, and I enjoyed Eisen's anecdotes about antics such as Marshall Faulk guessing his room number at the Pro Bowl (where it's a tradition to charge everything to unsuspecting people who make their room numbers known). It sure sounds like the guy has a good life and enjoys what he does. You don't learn much about Eisen himself, but you do get a sense of the camarderie, fun, and challenges of his profession.

So, yes, this is the least of the 3 football books I read recently, but it does what it sets out to do and offers an enjoyable perspective on the NFL from a TV guy's perspective.

Back later this week with thoughts on two more ambitious and rewarding books.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Another winner from NBC (Never Be Creative)

Here's all you need to know about the upcoming "Rockford Files" remake from the folks at Never Be Creative, aka NBC:

Original "Rockford Files": James Garner as Rockford.

New "Rockford Files": Dermot Mulroney as Rockford.

Original: One of the most charismatic actors in TV history creates an iconic character.

New: NBC builds a revamp around a guy whose main claim to fame is sometimes being distinguishable from Dylan McDermott.

This looks like another ill-fated idea from the House of Bad Ideas. Why bother doing a remake in the first place? NBC tried to shove "reboots" of "Knight Rider" and "Bionic Woman" at us and met resounding indifference, but this is an even worse idea: redoing a show most fondly remembered for its lead actor with...Dermot Mulroney (Sorry, Dermotaholics, but taking on this role does him no favors).

What's next, NBC, luring Louie Anderson for a remake of "Cannon"?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Wonderful World of TCM: (White) Lightning Round

Yes, it's a "WHITE LIGHTNING" round this post, as I finally got around to seeing an old recording I made of the 1973 Burt Reynolds moonshinin' and drivin' flick. This movie should have been awesome, but though it had its moments, I just wasn't feeling it. It needed something else. It had the moonshinin' and the drivin' (and some cool chase scenes), but maybe a little more gum-chewin' and charmin' from His Burtness would have involved me more.

However, "White Lightning" is a passable way to spend an afternoon. Burt plays a character named "Gator," and in some ways, that's all you need, and I bet the fillmakers pretty much agreed. Gator helps the authorities bust a moonshining ring and take down a corrupt sheriff/crime boss who killed Lil' Gator, AKA Burt's younger bro (not actually called Lil' Gator, and it would have improved the movie if he had been).

There's enough stunting and driving and Burt-rebel-being (OK, that's a ridiculous word, but you get my drift) to make you think this is a Hal Needham joint, but not so fast, my friend! This being '73, Needham was still doing stuntwork, and in fact, almost killing himself on this very movie during some dangerous car work.

There's some fun, some old hands around to fill out the cast, and best of all, there's Ned Beatty as Sheriff Connors.

Heel Ned Beatty is awesome, especially Southern Boy Heel Ned Beatty. Lemme tell you, he's a real sumbitch in this one. Watching him in action makes me wonder, what if he got the plum Lex Luthor role in "Superman: The Motion Picture" instead of Gene Hackman?

Now, I grew up watching that movie on ABC every year--it's one of my favorites--and Hackman is one of my favorite screen actors, but it's not like his Lex Luthor is the quintessential interpretation. Maybe Beatty would have dropped a few pounds, gone "the full Telly" instead of wearing a piece most of the film, and turned in a bona fide mega heel performance instead of the classic stooge henchman job he delivered as Otis.

And then maybe instead of settling into a fine career as a beloved high-profile character actor, he would have gotten something like Gene Hackman's unconventional leading man kind of career (Speaking of which, where is Gene Hackman these days? Is he in ill health? I woke up the other day and got really worried about this). Maybe we would have seen Ned Beatty with his name above the title in an ensemble Bruckheimer blockbuster or a big summer action thriller.

Is this scenario likely? I'd bet any effort to have ol' Ned topline a big event movie would have been met with derisive "Deliverance" jokes. So I would say no. But is pondering it a lot more interesting than reading my efforts to describe a movie you really need to see to appreciate?

[turns and looks straight ahead, enjoying a thoughtful gum chew or 3 before turning back around to face the reader]

You betcha.