Monday, May 31, 2010

Brooks on Books: "Cop Hater" by Ed McBain

I had long considered diving into McBain's 87th Precinct series of police procedural novels, but it was only recently I finally got around to it. I kind of wish I hadn't waited so long. See, the first entry, "Cop Hater," is OK, but it is a procedural, and I think knowing so much of the plot hurts the reader's ability to enjoy it.

McBain's (AKA Evan Hunter) debut effort establishes Isola, his fictional equivalent of Manhattan, and introduces the people that populate the 87th Precinct. It also kills some of them off. The story begins with a shocking murder and then builds from there.

Problem for me is, I saw the movie "Cop Hater" several years ago, and while that version telegraphs its ending somewhat, it arguably sets it up more effectively, making a key late twist more powerful. Regardless of which version you prefer, it almost kills the book to have seen the film and know what's coming. At least, it did for me. That's not always the case when going from movies to novels; I often can love a book even knowing the essentials of the plot and wishing I had read it before its screen adaptation. That's not so much the case here.

The characters, setting, and dialogue were interesting enough to merit another look-see at this series, and the inside look at police life--both personal and professional--is still potent even 50 years (and countless other police procedurals in various media) later. But I wanted to be hooked. I wanted to be pulled into the series enough to crave another book. That didn't happen. I expect I'll check out another McBain book at some point, but it may be a while.

Happy Memorial Day!

Have a great holiday everyone, and try to remember the meaning while you're enjoying those burgers and brats. I respect Memorial Day so much, I'm not gonna complain one bit that Turner Classic took a week off of the Bowery Boys to deliver its annual war flick festival.

I am going through a little bit of withdrawal, though, as it IS the first weekend in months without a Bowery Boys picture to enjoy. Oh, well, nothing a good bratwurst won't cure. Have a great one.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cultureshark remembers Gary Coleman

In the year 2010, it's tough to think of Gary Coleman without thinking of the health issues, the parental problems, the anger management thing, and the sundry embarrassments he's suffered over the years. When I came of age, though, the guy--well, the kid--was a superstar. I mean, he may not have been on the cover of every issue of "Bananas" that made its way to my school's book fair, but it seemed like it.

I watched way too many episodes of "Diff'rent Strokes" way too many times back in my misspent youth, even though for some reason--I swear I'm not making this up--even in my youth I had enough old man in me to think Conrad Bain was the coolest guy on the program. Years later, it was with great excitement that I learned the show was back on in reruns...and with great disappointment that I actually watched it. I think on 2 or 3 diff'rent occasions, I gave the show a shot and wound up thinking, "Did I really watch this so much as a kid?" (Conrad Bain was still cool, though.)

Gary Coleman's kidness, which was so appealing to other kids at the time, wasn't enough to compensate for the shameless mugging and sass that grated so much when I was an adult. Maybe that's why the show never seems to latch on in reruns nowadays, whether it's on TNN (remember that?), Nick at Nite, or BET. But Gary was just doing his job, and the show was huge at the time. Even now I find it hard to believe there isn't a place for it somewhere.

As for Gary, yeah, his Arnold Jackson is hard to take even in 22-minute doses, but in recent years, I've seen his guest shots on "Buck Rogers" and "America 2Night," as well as his starring role in the TV movie "The Kid with the 200 I.Q." You know what? He's pretty entertaining and appealing in those appearances, which makes me think we have to give him some slack for what he did on "Strokes," where after all he was a franchise, a meal ticket, and a catchphrase machine before he was old enough to drive.

As he aged, I never quite knew what to make of him. Sometimes, he came off like a pretty cool guy who had come to terms with his rise and fall as an A-list TV star. Other times, he came off like a bitter misanthrope who was too scarred by Hollywood/his folks/his own personal demons to live a healthy life even without his well-known physical difficulties. Sometimes he seemed both. Mark Evanier posts an amusing anecdote about TV animation legend Joseph Barbera's miserable pitch meeting with Coleman about a planned Saturday morning cartoon for NBC. Evanier writes:

Barbera got the deal. Barbera always got the deal. But first, he said, he had to listen to about an hour of little Gary Coleman telling him how they should rerun Space Ghost, how Gary didn't like the Godzilla cartoons, how Gary thought Scooby Doo was getting stale, etc. Then he had to sit there as Gary rejected pitch after pitch, lecturing J.B. on how to create a good cartoon show.

I don't know about you, but though the point of the story is what a pain in the rear the kid could be, I have to laugh and almost admire the chutzpah. I don't know what kind of animation ideas Coleman had for his own show (which wound up being no winner, but then, how many of Hanna-Barbera efforts from that era WERE?), but he sure had a point about Scooby being stale, Godzilla 'toons being weak, and Space Ghost being ripe for reruns.

So I want to remember all of Gary Coleman, the good, the bad, and the so cute it was almost ugly, and I hope an enterprising corporate TV channel does something besides show a "Diff'rent Strokes" marathon (although even that is looking doubtful right now). Run the TV movies. Run the cartoons. Heck, run "Space Ghost." But run something. Maybe it's just because I grew up at a certain point in time, but I think Coleman was a big enough star--even if for a short time--to merit some recognition as more than just a perpetual punchline.

Cultureshark remembers Dennis Hopper

When I saw Dennis Hopper in "Blue Velvet," I was too young to remember him as a youthful counterculture icon, but I was old enough to appreciate him as a middle-aged nut. Auteur this and "Cahiers du Cinema" that, but to me the highlight of the movie by far was when Hopper's Frank Booth asks, "What kind of beer do you drink?" and, when told "Heineken," thunders, "Heineken? F--- that s---. Pabst blue ribbon!"

Maybe it speaks to my own ignorance as a film scholar, but this moment stayed with me and my friends longer than any other element of David Lynch's joint. We went around saying that whenever possible, and sometimes when it shouldn't have been. Even before we were of legal age, we enjoyed prized opportunities to say the line when someone had or offered a Heineken. It was probably old by the time we did so, but who cared? It was funny stuff.

I feel like walking down to a seedy neighborhood bar, one established no later than 1959, and enjoying a PBR while munching stale peanuts and watching pro bowling on the 13" black and white TV on the wall. I won't do this, but I feel like it.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

This Week in DVD

Dear John: No, this is NOT the 1990s Judd Hirsch sitcom, but some chick flick based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. I'm sure this film is filled with sadness, but what kind of sorrow can compare to that which stems from the complete absence of the Hirsch "Dear John" from today's cultural landscape?

The signs are everywhere: Jere Burns has a recurring role on "Breaking Bad." I saw the guy who played Ralph on "How I Met Your Mother" a few weeks ago. Now a movie of the same name hits video. The TV show is no classic, but I remember it as a funny enough effort at recapturing some "Taxi" magic. Isn't thinking about that "Dear John" much more appealing than pondering a Nicholas Sparks movie?

The Road: Say what you will about Nicholas Sparks novels, but they don't depress you with cannibalism. At least, I don't think they do. "The Road" aspired to be the feel-bad movie of the year, but nobody seemed to realize it actually came out, so the honor went to "Old Dogs."

Stagecoach (Criterion): Criterion makes the questionable decision of packaging the 1939 John Ford/John Wayne film rather than the definitive Willie Nelson/Kris Kristofferson version. This has already been out on DVD for years, but nobody complains about double dips when they come from Criterion. I'm just stunned that Netflix is carrying this edition.

Bing Crosby TV Specials: Speaking of Netflix, I really wish the company would see fit to stock these, which fit in my "love to see once, probably don't need to own" zone. This set features 4 of Der Bingle's TV specials from the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and I think it's great that Infinity is releasing these. Unfortunately, Netflix doesn't carry much from Infinity these days.

Royal Pains Season 1: I was scanning the new releases when I noticed the MSRP for this set: a whopping SIXTY BUCKS! So Amazon's price, even with a healthy 33% discount, is still a sky-high 40 smackers. USA Network's philosophy is "Characters welcome..." and so is your money.

Leverage Season 2: By comparison, this new DVD set is a bargain at $40 MSRP and a $27 price at Amazon for 15 episodes. The team of Timothy Hutton and his merry men and women should rob from whoever's collecting that "Royal Pains" dough and give to the poor.

Friday, May 28, 2010

"Rare Val Kilmer Films"?

When I saw Val Kilmer's name in the "Trending Now" section of Yahoo's main page, I gave it a click to see if he had punched out a shutterbug or something (I forgot he had a movie to promote). The resulting page offered not only a series of links to stories about Kilmer, but an unusual ad (Can I call it a Google ad if it's not on Google? It sure looks like a Google ad) on the right.

"Rare Val Kilmer Films" was the header of a small advert for Movies Unlimited. OK, I know what happened here: I clicked Kilmer's name, and an automated process stuck the actor into an ad template for me.

But come on--RARE Val Kilmer films? I know Movies Unlimited stocks a ton of titles, but unless Kilmer has a sex tape I don't know about, none of his movies should be "rare."

(By the way, I don't get a lot of comments on the site, but if someone follows this post with a message that there IS a Val Kilmer sex tape, I swear I'm shutting the whole thing down.)

Rare Wally Beery films, sure. Rare Ken Berry films--you betcha. Maybe even rare Gabe Kaplan films are of interest around here. But rare Val Kilmer films, even if they exist, are not appealing to this innocent web surfer. I really gotta be careful what I click.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

First Impulse: "24" says good-bye

It would have been more appropriate if the long-running action series said something more like, "Dammit! We don't have TIME for this!" Or better yet, it could have hired a William Conrad soundalike (if there is such a thing, I want to hear the guy doing ads NOW) to intone, "Day 8, 4:00 P.M.: The time the, kept going."

But still, it gave fans a decent good-bye and capped off an uneven season with a little emotion and some of that elusive "closure" people always say they want. It's too bad there is still talk of everyone monkeying around with a "24" movie. That knowledge lessened any potential impact of the last episode.

There were strong moments, though, and ultimately the Jack Bauer Power Hour went out giving everyone just what had it given for 8 seasons. That is a nice treat for loyal fans but also, of course, an indication that it's time to go. I didn't care for the story this year, but in the final run of episodes, Jack Bauer was as over-the-top bonkers as ever, kicking ass, biting ears, and eviscerating foes. At the beginning of this season, I assumed the end would feature our hero reunited with his daughter, enjoying life as a grandpa and finally finding peace. Of course, that didn't happen, and the show refused to absolve or condemn him. After all this time, Bauer remains a thoroughly damaged individual, incapable of assimilating into "normal" life for reasons his own and not and his own, once again a fugitive. But he's also a superhero, a patriot, a man who we're clearly supposed to admire on some level.

I like that "24" didn't compromise or change Jack Bauer. He won some and lost some while ensuring justice eventually prevailed. The show him and longtime tag team partner Chloe a poignant good-bye scene (with more than a slice of "24"-style cheese), then told us, OK, back to the Life for Jack. One of the great characters in small screen history limped off rather than walked off into the sunset, and it was a perfect bittersweet ending. Let's forget that movie and hope it never actually happens, and we can all enjoy the high point of this season, a fitting conclusion to one of the wildest, goofiest, most entertaining action sagas on TV.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Vault of Coolness

This post is just an excuse to run cool screencaps of Bert Convy and Lee Majors. I'll explain these in subsequent posts, but for today, while everyone else is debating "Lost," just enjoy:

And here's Lee Majors--twice!

First Impulse: The "Lost" finale

I think it worked as a finale. It seemed crafted to provide numerous emotional high spots for longtime fans, and it succeeded in that regard. It was an entertaining hour and a half (too bad ABC stretched it out to 2 1/2 by cramming in commercials).

It didn't much change my opinion of the series, though, which is that it started very strong and offered many high points, finished up pretty well, but featured a whole lot of subpar moments and episodes in between which, now that we've seen the whole series, can be regarded almost as filler, or at least "stuff I didn't really need to see."

As far as the "character vs. plot" discussions you will surely see on the Internet this week, I say that while I never was one to demand every single plot element be "explained," (hell, I'm barely swift enough to keep up with the basics) it's a cop-out to shrug off big inconsistencies or dead ends just because "the show isn't about character." "Lost" on one hand looks like one of the most ambitious shows in history, but at some point it got away from its creators and often settled for frustrating meandering and pat sci-fi elements that didn't really add up, either at the time or in the end. Even within this very episode, there were many puzzling and/or disappointing bits that didn't seem "worth it."

It was entertaining enough, though, to keep me watching the whole way, though I might have jumped ship a few seasons ago had not my wife and I watched it together. "Lost" to me had elements of greatness but was never quite as good as its staunchest fans wanted it to be. I doubt that any kind of finale could have elevated the series from good to great for me, but that's not such a bad thing.

I abandoned any expectation of some grand, intricate design to "Lost" several years ago, and that approach really enhanced my viewing experience. Just sit back, enjoy, have fun puzzling over it, but don't think too much about it. It just doesn't hold up to that kind of scrutiny, which is why the show falls short of greatness.

Instead of complaining about what I didn't get from the show in general, or the episode in particular, I'm gonna try to admire what the show DID do: screw with the minds of millions of viewers, myself included, raise a lot of debate and discussion, and provide some decent entertainment value along the way.

Judging by the often contentious relationship between this show and many of its followers, plus the subsequent failure of many mythology-based TV dramas, I'd think it'd be a while before any weekly television program stimulates this kind of reaction. The fact that "Lost" itself is responsible for much of the fear that such a series won't work is part of its complicated legacy.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Brooks on Books: The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons

I haven't watched a lot of NBA action the past few years, but I thought reading this book would rekindle my action in the league. Well, it did, but, as I told my friend, it got me interested not in the NBA of today, but rather the NBA of the eighties and nineties (or at least the Michael Jordan years). I loved this wide-ranging, over-the-top, idiosyncratic look at the Association from its beginnings to the present. I still don't care too much about the present, but, boy, reading Simmons rave about the Bird-Magic seasons of glory sure makes me want to relive some of that.

Let's get this out of the way now: You will NOT love this book if you hate Bill Simmons. The longtime web fixture and ESPN personality is a bit of a divisive presence online, and for better or worse, this book reflects all the B.S. you would expect/hope for/fear. This volume is huge, it's irreverent, and it's highly opinionated. It features tons of footnotes containing all sorts of extra asides and info--Simmons has a LOT to say about everything, not just basketball. It contains references to many of Simmons' obsessions, such as Vegas, porn, and 1980s movies. It is also extremely self-referential. You get the feeling the book would be about half as long if you deleted all the jokes about how long it is. If the guy rubs you the wrong way, steer clear.

For everyone else, though, there is much to enjoy. A more "mature" basketball book might not drop f-bombs, make multiple references to a story in Wilt Chamberlain's autobio about being serviced on a plane by a flight attendant, or refer to popular conspiracy theories as if they were given facts (like the NBA rigging the draft lottery so the Knicks could get Patrick Ewing). Such a book would not be near as fun, though.

And then there is all that content. Simmons discusses the history of the league, breaking it down into distinguishable eras; he ranks the best teams of all time, etc., covering everything he can about the NBA in doing so. It all builds up to his unveiling of a new concept for the Hall of Fame. I can't find anywhere near the passion he does for the Basketball Hall of Fame, and I don't even think too highly about his idea, but I don't care because it's really just a framework for him to provide an entertaining ranking of the best players of all time.

Say what you will about Simmons' ego or his pro-Celtics bias, but the guy watches a lot of hoops, and he did a ton of research for this, studying old game tapes and digging up print materials, so he at least tries to back up his assertions. I don't agree with all of his reasoning, and in fact two big things reduce his credibility: His account early in the book of fawning over Isiah Thomas in person after ripping him for years, plus a several-page argument Chuck Klosterman makes that really makes you doubt Simmons' choice of the #1 player ever--a choice which "The Book of Basketball" essentially makes 700 pages developing.

I look at it this way: Simmons is cool enough and secure enough to give Klosterman that platform. Agree with him or not, he's an effective writer, and even if his Simmonsisms really pile up in a book this length, I think it's awesome he delivered a book of this length. I found the 700 pages plus of NBA talk addictive and compelling, and I almost didn't want it to end. It's an excellent read even for a (mostly) lapsed pro hoops fan like myself.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Half-Assed Gourmet: Hard to find good help?

On Mother's Day weekend, my family and I decided to be clever and go out the day before Mother's Day. You know, Saturday is the new Sunday and all that. Unfortunately, it was still Saturday, and the few decent restaurants in the vicinity of Cultureshark Tower fill up early. So at 5:00, my wife's first choice was already at an hour-and-15-minute wait, which would test our patience, let alone our toddler's, so off we went to Bonefish Grill.

(Incidentally, remember how we all used to make fun of our elders for hitting "early bird specials" at restaurants?" Not me anymore. We have to be out the door at 4:00 if we want to get right in to eat somewhere on a weekend.)

Bonefish isn't my wife's favorite restaurant--since she doesn't like seafood, it would have to give her free massages and pay off a credit card or two to get that status--but it is close to her first choice, and when you're all dressed up, that's a pretty big plus. I happen to love the place, partly because of the excellent service it offers.

Or did offer. You see, on this occasion, the place was packed, but we got in with no wait. Only problem was, we had to wait over an hour for our meals, culminating in me taking our daughter outside to run around in the parking lot (not the part people actually park in, but a blocked-off area on the side; I'm not that irresponsible). We had to get the grub "to go" because it took so long, but that's not even what puzzled me that night.

The puzzler was the server who came over to take our orders. I asked him if he could describe the special, a "Mixed Grill" of Longfin Rockefeller and grilled seafood. His eyes widened like Mantan Moreland in a zombie flick, and the poor guy stammered something about it being his first night alone on the floor, so he really couldn't describe the special.

The special, mind you! There was a sign in the lobby advertising this dish. It's not like I was looking for references and educational background of the specific fish. I have great sympathy for harried restaurant employees on a hectic evening, but this guy was either "not up to snuff," as Jack Nicholson described Dermot Mulroney in "About Schmidt," or someone running that place sent him out there unarmed. You got to at least tell your servers some basic info about the special. Don't you?

The other funny thing is, he didn't even offer to get someone who could describe the meal for me. What he did provide was an awkward silence, after which I said, "Uh, could you maybe find someone who could? I'm interested in getting it, but I really want to know what the deal is with it." Hey, I'm not the most articulate restaurant customer perhaps, but I gave him more info than he gave me.

To me, part of the restaurant experience is being able to rely on a learned opinion from the person who's gonna bring you the food. The first time I went to Bonefish, I was blown away by a server who gladly talked me through the different sauces they had, made some recommendations based on stuff I told her, and generally seemed to know what she was doing. Of course, that was on a weekday afternoon. Maybe I'm asking for too much on a busy weekend evening? Maybe we need to start hitting the restaurants at more reasonable hour for, say, 11:00 A.M.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

This Week (and last week) in DVD

Things are STILL so slow in the DVD world that once again I have to combine two weeks into one post.

Daybreakers: A vampire movie, only without the young kids the other young kids are drooling over. As a result, you probably have no recollection of this one's theatrical release whatsoever.

Legion: Some kind of goofy action/adventure flick. I want to talk about Paul Bettany. Remember when his career seemed red-hot? Lately, though, he has a succession of low-profile roles and misfires, and I think there was some kind of gentleman's agreement to forget that he was even in "The DaVinci Code."

The Messenger: Acclaimed film with Woody Harrelson as a soldier who informs families their loved ones have been killed in action. This premise is so serious that, especially given the upcoming holiday, I am not making any hemp jokes.

The Spy Next Door: I don't know about you, but everybody's kind of close together in my neighborhood, so this title makes me uncomfortable.

Extraordinary Measures: I made the "This looks like a TV movie" comments when it hit theaters, and not much has changed my mind since then. I want Harrison Ford movies to be a big deal again.

Daria The Complete Series: It took MTV long enough to get this out. It can't be due to a struggle to get music cleared since, from what I read, virtually all of the original contemporary tunes are excised from this set. Hey, remember when MTV used to be good? It wasn't always stellar even as far back as the nineties, but this animated series is an example of the channel doing something good with its original programming.

I confess, though, I never watched "Daria" much back in the day, and I am afraid to consider why because I think on a subconscious level--I'm not proud to admit this even with that qualifier--I resented her because she was condescending to Beavis and Butt-head.

The Monster and the Ape, The Navy and the Night Monsters: I looked the other way when Netflix refused to carry Warner Archives titles. I accepted that the company's policy was to stock few "upgrades" of previously released titles. But when Netflix carries neither "The Monster and the Ape" NOR "The Navy and the Night Monsters," something is seriously wrong!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Virginian: Bruce Dern makes Ken Berry look like a slacker

Thanks to a Starz/Encore Networks free preview weekend, I was able to watch my first ever episode of "The Virginian" via Encore Westerns. A momentous occasion, to be sure, yet somehow I forgot to alert the media.

This is one of those TV oaters that aired in a 90-minute slot, and even taking out commercial breaks, you get 75 minutes plus of western adventure/drama, which can result in a rather leisurely pace. I tend to really appreciate those half-hour shows like "Have Gun Will Travel," and my limited exposure to programs like "Virginian" and "Cimarron Strip" doesn't give me much spark for the 90-minute western.

But "Virginian" seems solid enough. From one episode, though--admittedly a minuscule sample size--it doesn't appear to offer too much to distinguish itself from other horse operas. Not to offend any Clu Gulager fans, but the regulars just don't thrill me (Lee J. Cobb isn't in the one installment I saw). This episode, "A Little Learnin'," is well written, though, with a rather unsettling ending that really takes the shine off the apparent happy ending the story offers. I'd watch the show again.

The thing that made me laugh when watching this episode was the sight of Bruce Dern at the beginning. "It shouldn't be a surprise Dern is in this one," I thought, "since he's in EVERYTHING." I wrote about the perceived ubiquity of Ken Berry recently; well, as I say in the title of this post, Bruce Dern makes Ken Berry look like a slacker.

I wasn't even around in the sixties to enjoy Bruce Dern as he happened, but I've seen enough TV from that decade and the early to mid seventies to make a confident if unscientific declaration that the man was indeed in every single television show of the era. At first I thought it was just westerns, but I remember him in "Alfred Hitchcock" and "Fugitive," so there you go. You've heard of the Golden Age of Television? When that ended, the industry went straight into the Dern Age.

Not only is Dern on the guest roster (and not even billed in the opening credits despite playing--this can't be a spoiler if you know Bruce Dern--the lead creep heavy in the episode), but we also see the likes of Harry Townes, Susan Oliver, and Albert Salmi, none of whom are wallflowers in old-school TV drama (actually, each probably has a longer resume than Dern, but I think it's funnier to compare DERN to Ken Berry, so I stand by my original focus).

So not only does "The Virginian" look an awful lot like all the other westerns of the era; throw in the illustrious guest stars, and it looks like every other TV drama, period! Believe me, I don't mean this as a slam. This is a solid episode, and the familiar faces add to the show's appeal, especially if you're underwhelmed by first impressions of the regulars.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Every silver lining has a dark cloud: The dark side of recent DVD news

Even in the face of a troubled economy and a deteriorating DVD landscape, we've seen some positive news in recent months about future video releases.

Well, I'm here to point out the dark side. Why not? I am not saying these news items aren't worthy of a smile, a mild celebration, maybe even a weekend bender fueled by copious amounts of Rick and Cokes. But the contrarian side of me (I like to think of it as the realistic side, but I'm giving everyone else the benefit of the doubt) can't help but ponder the flip side (and, hey, at least most studios aren't still cramming episodes on the flip sides of individual discs--see, I can be positive, too).

ITEM: Shout Select brings numerous TV on DVD releases direct to the fans!
FLIP SIDE: I think it's great that this company is at least sort of committed to continuing to release series like "Room 222" and "The Bill Cosby Show." But TV Shows on DVD mentioned the other day that Shout is going the website-only route because "the brick-and-mortar store chains have began declining lately to pick up certain 'retro TV' titles, such as this one."

This is true, and as someone who used to enjoy not just shopping for DVDs but looking at them in brick and mortar store chains, I think it stinks. But it's not like this is a new phenomenon. And what about those numerous online storefronts? I'm sure Amazon and Deep Discount would be glad to carry those releases. I just have a hard time believing Shout has to go this route, which makes the sets about 30%-40% more expensive for the fans.

ITEM: Infinity resumes the long-stalled "The Real McCoys" with a season 4 set this summer, at a reasonable price, no less. I don't own any of the 3 previously released seasons, but I enjoyed sampling one of my father's sets of the Walter Brennan comedy show--in fact, I enjoyed it way more than I expected--and I'm glad to see the show still has life on video.
FLIP SIDE: The episodes are presumably still hacked up, a la ones on previous releases. I think I could like "McCoys" enough to support DVD sets done right...but there's no indication yet that Infinity is suddenly gonna roll out uncut shows halfway through the series run. It's a shame to think this is all we're gonna get and that we can like it or lump it.

ITEM: Warner Brothers continues releasing classic Looney Tunes with individual discs dedicated to Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
FLIP SIDE: Has anyone seen the price on these things? I have, as I added them to my wish list. 20 bucks for 15 cartoons. Maybe I was spoiled by the late, lamented Golden Collection box sets--OK, I know I was--but this seems steep considering the lack of bonuses. WB has a pretty good strategy, I'll admit--for many buyers, a cheaper single disc will be an easier purchase than a multi-disc set--but relatively speaking, this isn't as "cheaper" as I hoped.

And, yeah, I know it's cheaper than 20 bucks everywhere, yada, yada, yada. I see a lot of backlash whenever someone points out a high MSRP of an upcoming DVD, with people chiming in that "it won't actually go for that," or, "shop around and you can find deals. Well, duh. But the deals would be much better if the MSRP weren't so high in the first place!

ITEM: CBS/Paramount Video finally announces Season 1 of "The Phil Silvers Show" (AKA "Sgt. Bilko")
FLIP SIDE: What can I possibly find to complain about in a news item about the DVD release of the first season of one of the all-time best TV sitcoms--nay, TV shows--ever? And the company even managed to throw in some of the bonus material from the 50th Anniversary set. AND it's not even a split-season set.

I feel bad about complaining; I really do. But look how they have us trained to celebrate the packaging of a whole season of a TV show, as if it were a special treat for the fans. What really troubles the back of my humble mind, though, is there is no guarantee the remaining seasons are forthcoming.

I know, I know, even if they aren't, so what? I still have an opportunity to upgrade my *ahem* editions with good-looking, uncut episodes of what is arguably the show's best run, anyway. But Mama Shark's blue-eyed boy has a completist strain inside him that cringes at the prospect of waiting 8 years to get the whole run of "Bilko," or worse yet, never getting that run.

Yeah, if I can worry about THIS one, there may be no hope for me. But, hey, somebody's gotta say these things sometimes. I'll try to put on a happy face, but I still have my concerns...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Brooks on Books: RIchard Belzer on Conspiracies

Lest you think I'm leaving out the fill title of the book as part of a CIA-driven conspiracy to discredit it, let me give you the actual name: "UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Believe." Richard Belzer's 2000 book is a funny, fast-moving look at conspiracies, with a heavy emphasis in the UFOs and JFK (Elvis fans will be disappointed). It's neither scholarly nor encyclopedic in its approach, but the Belz himself admits he's not trying to produce a comprehensive survey of conspiracy theories, but rather open some eyes and get people interested in pursuing some of these ideas.

Belzer goes pretty much from JFK to UFOs and alien abductions in a series of short chapters with tidbits and sidebars galore. It's not laid out as a coherent narrative, but certain threads do run through the entire text. The approach creates a fun read, but hardcore or even semi-hardcore buffs will find little new info here. For those buffs, though, Belzer's style and presentation of the material might make it worthwhile for entertainment value. The biggest drawback for all readers is a disappointing lack of pictures (it's frustrating to read so many references to photographic evidence that isn't reproduced here) and a lack of "helpful websites" in the endnotes, though Belzer promises it several times (or was it just removed from the edition I read? Hmm...).

I'll tell you what Belzer does do to me, and I'm kind of ticked off at him for it: He almost wants me to get back "into" the JFK assassination mess. Oh, I'm still resisting, but damned if he makes it all interesting enough to tempt me into edging closer to that rabbit hole. I remember when Oliver Stone's "JFK" stimulated interest in me and some friends. We were excited enough to get into some of the reading, and I gobbled up some of the big conspiracy books. Eventually I became just too exasperated by it all. This is a field in which conspiracy theorists often "call out" other conspiracy theorists for being part of the conspiracy, and it gets too difficult to sort out who's a CIA plant and who's not, so I don't want to get back into that, even on that same casual basis, and find my head spinning again.

That said, Belzer provides an entertaining summary of the big issues, and he succeeds in getting you going. Oh, I guess I should mention: He is 100% convinced that there was all kinds of shady stuff going on with JFK, and he's on the "pro" side of UFOs, too. Me, I think something HAD to have gone on besides just Lee Harvey Oswald shooting the prez, and I find it hard to believe we're the only intelligent beings in the universe (I find it hard to believe we're intelligent beings), but I'm not so sure about a lot of the ideas thrown out in this book.

But of course, that's just what the Parallelogram Commission that secretly funds Cultureshark would WANT me to say...or would it? Or is this post just a way to throw you off the trail? Or put you on it, only to be lulled away from the real truth by a dupe/plant/actor? Or is it possible that I'm not even on it, but I'm writing this while under mind control? Or maybe I AM in on it, but I'm only writing about the book because...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Words of Wisdom from the Bowery Boys

I'm watching "Smuggler's Cove" Saturday, the latest installment in TCM's ongoing "hopefully running all the way through to the end" Bowery Boys series, and this exchange cracks me up:

Sach sees a tigerskin rug on the floor and gasps a bit, exclaiming, "Ooh! A bagel tiger!"

To which Slip retorts, "It's not BAGEL tiger, it's BEAGLE tiger, you moron!"

And then, of course, he takes a swat at him.

I don't know how it plays in print--it makes me laugh because I already saw it--but it's hilarious on screen, just one of the many goofy moments that amuse me each week in this series. There's just something about the way Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey interact that gets me.

The Greatest Channel Known to Mankind didn't earn its reputation by playing "Some Like It Hot" every two weeks, but rather by playing the gems (and not gems) that aren't as widely circulated in the culture today. I'm loving these Bowery Boys films, to the extent that I usually watch each Saturday's offering the same day. That may not be a big deal to normal folk, but I have unwatched movies from last summer on my DVR.

The Boys take a break for Memorial Day weekend, but let's hope Turner Classic Movies continues the series.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Summer Movie Preview: May (Part 2)

Continuing my look at the big summer movies of May...

Shrek 4: Forever Ever After (May 21): Hey, don't look at me. I thought the franchise was spent after the third one. Apparently Mike Myers' titular ogre is tired of being happy and wants to be an ogre like he was before, even if for just one day. Look, I know it's hard to tell good stories AFTER the "Happily Ever After," but why does this series seem to be all about Shrek bitching about what should be a great life?

Nevertheless, this one rates on the high side of a yellow light, and I may even see it a lot sooner than I should, because of one man: Puss in Boots, the best new movie character of the millennium. I have a bad feeling about the fourth installment of any series, but Puss in Boots is almost enough.

MacGruber (May 21): A movie based on a comedy sketch is dubious enough, but a movie based on a sketch I never find all that funny is grounds for a red light. That Toonces movie would have excited me more. I mean, even today that Toonces movie would have excited me more.

Sex and the City 2 (May 28): I was willing to tolerate the existence of the first movie--well, not really, I wasn't, but it came and went without my having to see it, and so I was not entirely upset with its existence. Now along comes a sequel that looks even less essential than "Shrek 4." I thought the whole point of the show was the New York setting, but this film transplants them to the desert. Just the other night, I saw a commercial that revealed that somehow John Corbett's character just happens to be wherever the "girls" end up.

I couldn't limit myself to my normal eye rolling; I had to make a wise-ass comment. When I turned to my wife to ask why the hell John Corbett was...wherever he was supposed to be, she could only say she didn't know. She clearly had no interest whatsoever in defending the creative choices made for "Sex and the City 2." And she WATCHED the first one! I guess what I'm trying to say here, folks, is, how in the world did Arli$ last as long as it did?

Need I mention I give this one a rock-solid red light? And, no, I don't care if it clashes with Carrie's Manolo Blahniks or whatever, a red light it is.

Prince of Persia (May 27): All it took was one look at Jake Gyllenhaal playing action hero in the trailer to make my sides ache. This really does look a helluva lot funnier than "MacGruber." You know, I had these feelings even before I learned it was based on a video game. This could show up in some Flop of the Year lists, so maybe it has some historical significance. Me, I give it a red light, and I urge Jake to limit his big-time movie heroics to starring in rumors that he's replacing Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Summer Movie Preview: May (Part 1)

Time for another look at the upcoming summer movies from a man who never goes to the movies anymore. My rating system is so simple, even a blogger can do it: red light means no way I'll see it, yellow light means I might see it under the right circumstances (wave of good reviews, matinee opportunity, or maybe see it on DVD), green light means, yeah, I'd see it if I didn't have a young daughter and therefore never went out.

(Don't get me wrong. I'm not blaming my daughter; if anything, the biggest of her many contributions to my life is inadvertently preventing me from spending money on so many crappy flicks the past few summers.)

This week we start with May:

Iron Man 2 (last weekend): This one doesn't sound like a winner, but Robert Downey makes a cool Tony Stark, even if I'm not sure the filmmakers know exactly what to do with Iron Man. There are other bright spots in the cast, though. Don Cheadle for Terence Howard is an upgrade akin to trading in a Mitsubishi for a Cadillac (I'm not a car guy, so I hope that makes sense). ScarJo as Black Widow reminds me of my days working at a movie theater. A few of us were discussing the upcoming epic "Turbulence," and my buddy said, "The ONLY reason I'd see that would be to see Lauren Holly in one of those flight attendant outfits," (he may have said "stewardess;" we were less enlightened in the nineties) and that's kind of what I'm thinking with Black Widow and "Iron Man 2." But I'm also excited that Garry Shandling is in this movie--as anyone, let alone a freaking U.S. Senator--albeit for a completely different reason. Yeah, I don't have a lot of intelligent thought on this movie, but it came out last week and everyone's probably made up their mind by now, anyway.

So what does this all add up to? It adds up to a yellow light--something I'm not gonna rush to see this summer, but something I'll rent early on DVD.

Robin Hood (May 14): This movie purports to tell the untold story of Robin Hood, and to that, I say, if it hasn't been told by now, maybe it's not worth telling. I saw Russell Crowe on Craig Ferguson's show the other night, and Big Russ talked up how different THIS version is. He rattled off a list of standard Hood scenes and tropes, none of which, he insisted, are in his new movie.

So what IS in there? Well, to be honest, I still don't know. I like the idea of Robin Hood, so I'll see this eventually, but it strikes me as an inessential picture right now. Yellow light.

Letters to Julia (May 14): Can Amanda Seyfried carry a movie? I guess we're about to find out as she headlines this romance. It's pretty much her and a bunch of guys with Italian-sounding names, which I suppose is kind of a relief given that the story is set in Italy.

Seyfried has an interesting look, certainly not one you're gonna see in everything else in the multiplexes this summer. This ain't my kind of movie, but I kind of hope it does well for her. As for me, it's a firm red light until/unless my wife asks me to rent it from Netflix someday.

Just Wright (May 14): A basketball movie starring Common and Queen Latifah? Why not give us a hip-hop movie starring LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony? Wait, forget I said that. There's a very real chance that is already in the works. Red light. And the Celtics in 7.

Look for Part 2 of May tomorrow!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Page Ought: The scoop on series finales

That's right, Cultureshark's explosive--and exclusive--gossip column returns, and this time we're sharing the scoop on a host of network TV season finales. If you don't want spoilers, turn your heads, folks, because we have all the juicy tidbits right here

Desperate Housewives: Look for a dangerous situation to culminate in several inconvenient plot threads being wrapped up at once! Do NOT expect to see ex-castmember Nicollette Sheridan! And, oh, yeah: at least one character DIES.

Grey's Anatomy: A bunch of characters engage in some hand-wringing over their personal lives. Others engage in hand-wringing over a medical crisis. This is gonna be a real game changer. And one character DIES.

Private Practice: A bunch of characters engage in some hand-wringing over their personal lives. Others engage in hand-wringing over a medical crisis. This is gonna be a real game changer. And one character DIES.

Lost: Many confusing things unfold in a manner that appears to answer many questions but also leaves room for perpetual "interpretation." At least one character DIES.

House: House deals with the same drug addiction he's been dealing with for years. There is some sexual tension. And the idea of anything truly original happening DIES.

Two and a Half Men: The titular brothers get in an argument over a wacky situation. The notion of Charlie Sheen's dignity DIED many years ago.

Law and Order Special Victims Unit: The detectives struggle to solve the case of someone who died.

Heroes: Wait, this show ended a while ago, didn't it? Somebody died, right?

America's Next Top Model: The remaining contestants make bitchy comments. Someone's dream of becoming America's Next Top Model DIES.

Masterpiece Theater: When an unsuspecting person dies, a very British but slightly quirky detective tries to solve the case.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Cable Movie Roundup

This roundup is gonna be one big Post of Ambivalence. You'll see what I mean.

Burn After Reading: The Coen Brothers are brilliant...except when they're not. I often think my quality meter is askew when it comes to these guys. I tend to love films that many find disappointing ("The Ladykillers") while not getting into some of the acknowledged classics (I guess I need to watch "Miller's Crossing" again someday). Given the tepid reaction to "Burn," I half-expected to find it a neglected comic masterpiece. Instead, I thought this sort-of-madcap spy caper was reminiscent of "Intolerable Cruelty"--a movie that looked like the performers were having a great time, or working hard to convince itself they were, but just not getting those good feelings across to the audience. The lack of a real payoff wouldn't be as big a deal if the movie were funnier, but it's more often just frantic.

The Express: This is a competent biopic of the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner, Syracuse star running back Ernie Davis, who died of leukemia shortly after his outstanding college career. Goofy personal note: When the commercials for this were airing, my wife and I saw an ad where something got cut off right after the voice-over guy said, "The first African-American," and we entertained ourselves with the notion of someone making a movie about that.

As for the actual movie "The Express," it's a solid football flick that tackles (sorry) racism and makes Davis seems like a swell guy. It hits pretty much all the notes you expect, but there's no real spark, though. I'd recommend it for football fans, but I get the feeling this is a case where if you're really interested, you might be better off just reading a book about Ernie Davis.

The Promotion: This sounds a lot better on paper than it plays on screen: Seann William Scott (OK, maybe it doesn't sound so good on paper after all) and John C. Reilly are in the running for a promotion to manage a supermarket, so they engage in a bit of one-upsmanship to boost their own chances and and discredit each other.

Reilly is awesome, but he's fairly subdued here, and while I respect Scott's own self-tone-down of his standard wise-ass shtick, he can't carry a movie as a regular schlub. You keep hoping "The Promotion" will really take off, but it never offers more than mild amusement. Meanwhile, the movie casts the likable Jenna Fischer as Scott's wife and does almost nothing with her. There is a little bit of tension as Scott takes some financial risks before he actually GETS the promotion, thus endangering his family's future, but there isn't enough of it. This is a likable time-passer if you catch it on TV (and that's not at all difficult if you have HBO and/or Cinemax), not much more.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Panel Discussion: The many powers of Spider-Man

Amazing Spider-Man #14 is a significant issue in the annals of comic book history, not just because it introduces the Green Goblin, but because it introduces a remarkable new super power, one so smartly conceived and so dazzling, I can't believe it's not used more often to this day:

This power has not been used properly since then--well, except once by Judy Landers on an episode of "Madame's Place."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

This Week and Last Week in DVD

It's Complicated: Actually, it's pretty simple. If Nancy Myers directs a movie, stay away from it unless you think the actors involved "are a hoot."

Nine: Hey, new to DVD this week is that big musical extravaganza that won all the Oscars a few months ago.

Wait, it didn't? Oh, whoops. Never mind.

Tooth Fairy: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson takes too many more roles like this, and he's gonna have to start beating guys over the head with chairs again. This week is a good example of why those infernal release windows the studios are giving Netflix and Redbox don't always matter much. Another case in point...

Leap Year: We love Amy Adams, but we have to have limits. I could swear I actually saw a print ad carry the pull quote, "Amy Adams is wasted in this dreck!"

Five Minutes in Heaven: Sounds like me in college. I don't even know what that means! This movie is kind of under the radar, to be sure, but Heaven or no, it's got ~NESBITT~, James Nesbitt, and that should be enough for you, pally.

No Time for Sergeants: This Andy Griffith classic is on my list of "Great movies I should have seen all the way through by now" list. Alphabetically, it comes right after "No Holds Barred."

Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1980s Volume 1: This collection seems to merit a rental, but I refuse to get nostalgic for "Monchhichis." Not gonna do it. Same with "Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos." And that Ed Grimley cartoon. Resistance...weakening...Not gonna get nostalgic for Mr. T...And not for Thundarr--AAAAH! OK, I give up, let me see this.

Honeymooners specials: Two color "Honeymooners" specials from the 1970s. Audrey Meadows is in; Joyce Randolph is not (Jane Kean from the 1960s color episodes is in). Don't get me wrong, I think all 'Mooners stuff should be on DVD, and I want to see these, but I'm really getting impatient for MPI to do a worthwhile definitive repackaging of the Lost Episodes.

Marcus Welby M.D.: Doctor knows best, you know. Shout Factory continues to crank 'em out, adding this amiable medical drama to its roster.

The Facts of Life Season 4: Doing more than just listing this as a new release might tip you off to the fact that I watched wayyyyyy too many reruns of the show in the eighties. So I won't do more than just list it.

Wrestlemania XVI: Notable for featuring Shawn Michaels' last match...until he wrestles again. Retirement in professional wrestling is about as legit as, um, the rest of professional wrestling.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Putting the "America" in "BBC America"

So guess what show BBC America has added to its schedule--twice each weeknight, no less--in some of its valuable prime time lineup space?

No, come on, guess. What series did the American Beeb decide to share with all of us Anglophiles hungry for quality "new to us" programming?

You guessed it: "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

OK, you probably didn't guess it. I hope you didn't. After all, who could expect BBC America to add a show that's not British, has already been played to death, and is already on other networks, anyway?

It's time for us to START expecting that kind of maneuver because it's about time to write off BBC America as a viable source of British entertainment. Oh, there will be occasional treats like "The Inbetweeners," and if you're a fan of "Top Gear" and "Doctor Who," you'll have reason to tune in for the endless edited reruns on the American Beeb, but the slow, steady decline of this channel is becoming avalanche (I was trying to think of a cool British expression there, but I just decided to say "avalanche" with an accent instead).

Seriously, "Star Trek"? And not even the classic one, but the fake one? I'll spare you the story of how I learned to hate "Next Generation" at college when a group of students rushed into the TV lounge each night after dinner to reserve the TV for it instead of "Beavis and Butt-head." No, I'll just tell you that the other day I watched "A Piece of the Action," the old-school "Trek" episode featuring Vic Tayback as Roaring Twenties-style gangster. Did the "Next Generation" ever have an episode with Vic Tayback, period? No. End of discussion.

"Trek" is wildly inappropriate for BBC America, or at least the BBC America I want to have. It's moves like this that make me wish I had the guts (and the indifference to sports and TCM) to cancel my cable service. What, the show "fits" because some British dude plays the ship's captain? In that case, I have some other programming suggestions for the network. How about "The Jeffersons"? It had that weird British neighbor that walked on George's back. Or why not show "Friends"? They went over to London for a few episodes, right? And, hey, why not add reruns of "American Idol"? They sing British songs on there all the time!

I will give BBC America credit for filling 10 hours a week without Gordon Ramsay, but this is just too much. I know that on weeknights, I'm going to boldly go where so many others have gone before: to other channels.