Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rave on, Rave Cinemas!

The local chain of gigundaplexes was bought out/absorbed/seized at gunpoint (hey, I don't know the business aspects of the exhibition industry) a while back, and while change was slow in coming, I'm starting to see some differences in the theater closest to me. I rarely go to the the-AY-ter these days, but just driving by, I can see one big change: The building with that most generic of titles adorning its front, "Multiplex Cinemas," somehow has an even blander appellation now: "Cinemas."

You have to admire the new owners, Rave, for taking down the Multiplex part and not bothering to put up a new sign or at least spring for the letters R-A-V-E. What was the big hurry in taking down the "Multiplex"? Yeah, it was the name of the theaters run by National Amusements, but it's not exactly a hallmark of distinctive brand establishment. Did Rave really worry that people strongly identified with a name as spartan as "Multiplex Cinemas"? Well, at any rate, we can all appreciate this action, or lack of action, because I'm sure by not installing a new sign on the front of the building, Rave is passing the savings on to us in the form of lower ticket and concession prices.

(If you believe that, I have a pair of tickets to "Jonah Hex II" I'd like to sell you.)

The other big change I see is on the vertical marquee-type sign that stands on the property; since it's tall enough to be seen from the highway, passersby can check out the current lineup of movies at the joint while they go to work, school, or their podiatrist appointment. It's kind of like a little billboard and serves as some effective free advertising for the theater.

Or I should say it DID. Rave has replaced the traditional system of putting the movie titles up on that sign with a new system that consists of telling us to go to their website for films and showtimes.

I'm sick of businesses telling me to go to the Internet to get something I used to be able to get offline. Why should I have to fire up my computer and go to some official site just to see what movies are playing right now? Oh, I could go into the theater, but that's hardly as convenient as just driving by it. I could also look at the newspaper for movie listings, but you know what? I stopped getting the newspaper, in part because it moved much of its content to the Internet.

Unlike the major exterior renovations Rave is (so far) avoiding, this inaction doesn't save money. I really don't see the point of taking away that simple marquee feature. In fact, I think only one person benefits from it: the poor sap who would otherwise have to go out there with a pole and a suction cup and change the letters on that sign each week. I can tell you from experience, that guy or gal must be breathing a huge sigh of relief every Thursday night.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cable Movie Roundup

Duplicity: I enjoyed the hell out of "Duplicity," and I think people need to realize what an entertaining ride it is. You have to enjoy twists--self-conscious twists, even, but in a good way--and spying and having your mind screwed with, but if these characters are all about screwing each others' minds, well, then you the viewer ought to be able to take it, too.

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen make a great screen team, and their back and forth that makes up the heart of the movie is well worth checking out. "Duplicity," with its tale of corporate espionage and the amazing interpersonal dynamics of those in the spy game, is the kind of story that makes your head spin. I expected that, but I did not expect how funny it would be. I was laughing out loud for much of the movie at the absurdity of the escalating paranoia among the characters, and while this isn't quite supposed to be a comedy screenplay, I assure you it was a good kind of laughter, a rollicking, "Hey, this is a fun trip," kind of good humor.

All this and Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson being predictably awesome. This was an extremely pleasant surprise to come across on HBO.

Rachel Getting Married: This movie is a "ride," too, but more like a forced trip to the store when you're little and you don't really want to go because they don't even have toys there and I want to go to McDonald's, and WHY CAN'T WE? I actually think Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married" is a decent enough watch, but it's not something I want or need to see again.

I can appreciate raw emotion and honesty, which "Rachel" succeeds in delivering for much of its running time. But that running time feels longer than it should, and the whole thing is more a draining experience than a great movie experience. Mrs. Shark put it best when she said she felt like she was at a real wedding--notions of verisimilitude serving art aside, she didn't mean it as a compliment. We see a lot of the climactic wedding. I mean a lot.

Anne Hathaway rightly garnered tons of acclaim for this role, and her performance as an often unpleasant character does anchor the film. Even when playing a self-destructive mess, she's still an appealing presence (that's my overwritten way of saying she's "hot"). But seeing this family work out its many issues is a bit of an ordeal, and the wedding scenes don't offer much reward. Worth seeing...once.

Slumdog Millionaire: I may have out a blurb up about this in the "Shark Bytes" section, but I never really wrote much about this after I finally saw it a few months back, and there's a good reason: I just didn't have much to say about it. Hmm, come to think, I still don't. But it won all those awards and everything, so I feel I ought to say something.

It's quite possible that Mrs. Shark and I would have been more impressed with "Slumdog" had we seen it early on, before all the awards and the hype, instead of afterward. We enjoyed it but felt a little underwhelmed considering.

The gimmick of having star Dev Patel draw from his wild life to answer quiz show questions is a good one, though, and it's well executed by director Danny Boyle. This is another movie filled with depressing events and off-putting characters, and I don't think it all comes together the way it needs to. I'm happy this cast had its moment in the sun, but I don't know what kind of future there is for a lot of them. Still, "Slumdog" was a phenomenon, and I'm glad I saw it, even if I found it more "likable entertainment" than "Oscar winner."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

DVD Double Feature: Star Trek and Alice in Wonderland

This summer, the missus and I have rediscovered the quaint leisure pastime known as "watching movies on DVD." Recently we saw one big thumbs up and one big "ehhh...."

The disappointment is Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland." Well, the official title is probably My father is a wise man, and he once shared the sage observation that were Mr. Burton to exercise his bowels in a typical fashion, i.e, in the proper receptacle and venue for such a bodily function, then film said activity, that my father himself would gladly view the resulting product were it to be exhibited in a movie theater.

(OK, I tried to write that all fancy-like in the hopes it would sound more sage than it really is.)

Yet my father has not yet seen "Alice in Wonderland," and while I am sure circumstance is the biggest culprit, I wonder if on some level he knows that it ain't one of Burton's best. I usually enjoy the director's output (his MOVIES, that is) quite a bit, often much more than the average guy if a bit less than my dad, but "Alice" just doesn't cut it.

My wife and I were a little tired after a long day of parenting and whatnot, so maybe that had something to do with our experience, but we just never got "into" the movie. There are all sorts of weird touches and visuals and scenes in the film, but there is no solid entryway for us as viewers to immerse ourselves in the story. The bells and whistles feel like distractions meant to cover for the lack of a solid plot.

"Alice" is the first movie in some time where Johnny Depp's Depp-ness feels more like a gimmick than an effective performance. Perhaps it, along with elements such as the typically elaborate Burtonian set design, worked best as spectacle on the big screen. At home, however, "Alice in Wonderland" was just a blah kind of DVD screening.

J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" reboot, on the other hand, excited me enough to keep me in its grip even after another long day of parenting and whatnot. I was prepared to hate it, too. Oh, how I was prepared to hate it. I usually dislike anything "Star Trek" not featuring the old-school original cast, for one thing, and I am not a big fan of Abrams' past work, for another.

Somehow, the combination works for me in this instance, and Mrs. Shark likes the movie, too, though maybe not as much. I'd call it one of our most successful recent movie rentals.

"Star Trek" is a great adventure movie, and that's all it needs to be. I still think maybe some circles overpraised it a bit when it came out, or at least tried too hard to find some greater meanings that weren't there--remember when this was touted as a possible Best Picture choice? But "Trek" is really good at delivering action, and all different types of action, too. I enjoyed the variety of battle scenes, such as spaceship battle, shootouts with weapons, and good, old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat. The action is generally shot well, too, so we can see what's going on and what's about to happen when necessary. This is a basic element of filmmaking that too many directors and editors can't seem to handle, but this "Trek" crew satisfies.

Still, there are enough character moments and emotional scenes to make this more than JUST an action-oriented blockbuster, and the story, while a bit confusing at times, is enough to move things along. Hmm, maybe that Oscar talk wasn't so off base after all.

Most importantly, this movie FEELS like Star Trek. There are a few ridiculous moments that should have been excised long before the final product hit theaters--I'm thinking in particular of one embarrassing sequence with Young Kirk that blares "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys while the future captain is speeding. Yeah, we get it, he's cool and he's a rebel. But most of the character stuff is not so forced, and it's fun to see the origins of the "Enterprise" crew. The crew itself is well casted and solid in filling the iconic roles.

This "Trek" does something clever in an effort to--well, not appease everyone, exactly, but maybe not drive hardcore fans up a wall. Through a plot involving time travel as an essential component, Abrams and his creative collaborators have in effect created a new universe based on the familiar characters like Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Of course, anytime you throw time travel into the mix, you're gonna end up with as many plot holes, or at least head-scratching aspects, as you are wormholes, but this gimmick doesn't hurt the film or the franchise (after all, I think every other episode of the original show had the crew flying back to some century or other) and in fact it's a good way to establish, "We're gonna make new movies with these guys, but we don't want to change anything you've already seen and enjoyed."

I think the best thing I can say about "Star Trek" other than that I had a great time watching it is that I will gladly see those new movies. The cast is fine, the template is there, and I'll see any sequels these folks want to make.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Wonderful World of TCM: The Survivors.

What better way to kick off Movie Week here at Cultureshark than to revisit the Wonderful World of TCM? Our good friends at Turner Classic Movies offered a relative rarity last month in the 1983 Michael Ritchie film "The Survivors," an offbeat comedy co-starring Walter Matthau and Robin Williams, who get a lot of help from Jerry Reed.

I don't have a lot of in-depth analysis on the movie here, but I agree wholeheartedly with Ivan at TODY, who opined...

Yes, I know this movie is uneven and has more holes than Albert Hall. I don’t care.

He calls it one of his own guilty pleasures. Go read Ivan's take on "The Survivors," and then I'll share my own interest here.

Here's where I confess to a little thrill at not just seeing a lesser known but entertaining picture on TCM in the wee hours, but at hearing the magical F-bomb--you know, variations of the word known here as "f***" because I consider this a family blog and in my family we don't know how to spell with asterisks--on Turner Classic.

That's right, call me immature, call me juvenile, Call Me Bwana (sorry, but it was Bob Hope night Sunday on TCM), but I do get a kick out of hearing salty language on The Filthiest Cable Channel Known to Mankind.

Well, it's far from the filthiest channel, of course, but isn't it fun hearing a naughty word or two in there sometimes? I mean, I 'd hate to hear hardcore profanity on the channel all the time, or even often, but as long as it's mostly confined to later hours and special occasions, I have zero problem.

Quite the contrary--I chuckle at the notion of the hip but still basically staid TCM entertaining this kind of language. For all I know, esteemed host Bobby Osbo sounds like mid-1980s Eddie Murphy off camera, but in my mind, he doesn't even think the f-word. Even if Tony Curtis lets it slip during some anecdote about "Some Like It Hot," I believe Bobby's internal filter processes it, automatically changes the letters to asterisks, and only then lets the word pass safely into his noggin.

On a more serious note, seeing and hearing this kind of thing on Turner Classic is a reminder of the network's commitment to screening uncut movies in their original form whenever possible. TCM even showed Jamie Lee Curtis' breasts via "Trading Places" last year. I believe Bobby Osbo's internal filter processes female breasts, let's not go there.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It was fun while it lasted: Outta Sight Retro Night

Effective September, WGN America drops its Sunday night classic rerun lineup, AKA "Outta Sight Retro Night." Well, it was a good run, and it gave us a few years of good times (though it never actually aired "Good Times"). It's a shame that WGN is going in a different direction with newer sitcoms like "Old Christine," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," shows that are already running other places, but, hey, let's keep it positive here.

Instead of bemoaning the loss of Outta Sight Retro Night and listing it as another reason to yearn for a la carte cable pricing, let me praise WGN for giving a nice treat for classic TV fans on Sunday nights for several years. That's right, it's Sunday, and I feel mellow.

Thanks to WGN, I was able to enjoy virtually the entire run of "Newhart," a show I mostly missed in its original era. I also saw many "Barney Miller" episodes, and WGN made it through a whole cycle of that series.

I wish there were more cable networks showing TV programs from before this decade, but them's the breaks. Most of this stuff is on DVD, anyway. Let's just sit back and appreciate that in this day and age, a national superstation was willing to take a chance and show--gasp--a TV program from the--gasp--1950s! WGN not only showed a black-and-white classic in "The Honeymooners," but it showed the Lost Episodes, which exist in grainy kinescope form that probably makes most modern TV programmers physically gag. That's bold stuff. It was rough-looking (and edited for syndication--hey, WGN wasn't perfect), but it still got on because it was arguably the best sitcom of all time.

Outta Sight Retro Night didn't last forever, but it lasted almost 2 1/2 years, and that's longer than I expected.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Still MORE reasons to yearn for a la carte cable pricing

*Lifetime Networks: If you ever notice the TV schedules, all the original programming that theoretically makes Lifetime as a cable entity distinct--or at least most of that programming--is on spinoff network Lifetime Real Women, while the mothership is loaded with overexposed reruns like Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, Wife Swap, etc. (I exclude "Frasier" because it's possibly the best single series ever aired on Lifetime and I can't believe it's still on, actually). Sure, you can see "Army Wives" and "Project Runway," but why is so much of Lifetime's schedule filled with stuff you can and have seen elsewhere? You have to get expensive digital cable to get most of the originals--granted, many of them are probably reruns by now, too, and many of them are probably lame, but still, this is a prime example of the homogenization of big cable networks, which eventually spills over to the spinoff niche channels that are supposed to supplement the genericized main networks.

And I don't even watch Lifetime!

*ESPN Classic infomercials: None of the ESPN networks should ever show infomercials, ever. Period. Even if it is at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.

*ABC Family's new sitcom: I realize that ABC Family has moved away from the original concept of "family programming" as defined several regimes ago at the network, but before the debut of "Melissa and Joey," a new sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence, I kept seeing references to how "edgy" it was. Why does an ABC Family need to be edgy at all, much less brag about it. I mean, Melissa Joan Hart was yakking about its edginess. Apparently, in the premiere episode, there was a joke referencing the word "vagina" and then another joke referencing--without saying--the queen mother of all words not to call a female. It's almost enough to make me wish for more airings of "The 700 Club."

*The existence of "Jersey Shore": Oh, wait. That's not a reason to yearn for a la carte cable pricing. It's a reason to yearn for the quick, merciful destruction of our very civilization by a giant asteroid collision. Sorry.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

This Week in DVD

The Last Song: Miley Montana--or Hannah Cyrus--or Miley Cyrus, that is, stars in this tearjerker that interests me not in the slightest except inasmuch as I feel obligated to list a new theatrical-to-DVD release this week.

Furry Vengeance: Oh, yeah, there's also the movie in which Brendan Fraser undoubtedly takes multiple nut shots from various wild critters.

Me and Orson Welles: Did I read this right--it's a Target exclusive? I know it stars Zac Efron, but Richard Linklater plus Orson Welles doesn't seem to equal "only at Target."

Rocky and Bullwinkle Season 4: I'm sure many fans gave up on this long-stalled classic series, but Vivendi came through and pulled Season 4 out of, hat, Rock.

Friday Night Lights Season 4: Meanwhile, this show gets its regular DVD releases, but it remains under the radar. I bailed on season 2 with the disappointing Tyra storyline and found it difficult to get back on board, but eventually, I'll catch up thanks to these sets.

Dexter Season 4: Still haven't seen an episode of this series yet, but my dad endorses it, for what it's worth. What, you don't respect my dad? You want to make something of it? Sorry, I got a little aggressive there. Maybe I don't need to watch a show about serial killers.

Ugly Betty Season 4: With all these Season 4 sets this week, I half expected to see a Green Acres Season 4 box on the docket, but nothing doing.

One Tree Hill Season 7: This series isn't under the radar, it's off the screen. Each year I look over the networks' TV schedules, and each year, I go, "THAT's still on?"

Cougar Town Season 1: I keep reading that this show improved dramatically over the course of the season. Eh, probably too late for me. If I'm catching up on a series, it's gonna be "Friday Night Lights."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Magazine rack

Some brief thoughts on magazines I've read, not read, and thrown at the wall in anger lately:

*I saw the new issue of "Golf Magazine" at the store and saw the headline over the title: "The NFL Issue." Huh? I don't follow golf, but I'd be pretty ticked off I got a "Pro Football Weekly" that proclaimed itself "The PGA issue." Is this a tacit admission that golf isn't interesting enough to sustain its own periodical?

*Receiving the new "Rolling Stone" in the mail and enjoying the Katy Perry cover and photos almost makes up for that abominable Lady Gaga cover several issues back. Almost. [SHUDDER]

*I was stunned to see two copies of "The Ring" at the supermarket the other day--pleased the mag is still around and that it has distribution in mainstream outlets, but still surprised. Back in my youth, a trip to the supermarket was not complete without good ol' Mom buying me a wrestling magazine. Every now and then, I'd slip in a boxing mag when I got a little older. But I don't expect to see anything apart from the official WWE publications anymore.

*My nearest library branch quit carrying "The Atlantic Monthly" as part of the budget cuts it has endured in the last couple years. Other branches in the area still stock it, but, jeez, that's a pretty big one. Or it used to be. Come on, people, read magazines!

*"Comics Buyer's Guide" is a shell of its former self--I mean, it's literally like a third of the size of what it was when it first went to monthly from weekly several years back--and I let my subscription expire. But guess what? They talked me back into the game with a super-cheapo deal. This really was a great magazine that was gutted to excess as a response to current market factors, but it's still worth what they're charging me now. It's probably too much to ask that it somehow rises from the ashes, Phoenix-style, and beefs up that page count again, but I'll probably continue to pine for that outcome.

*Speaking of unreasonable expectations, do I have any reason--any at all--to believe "Entertainment Weekly" will improve if I renew my sub? It might stay about where it is, but I don't think it's gonna bounce back at this point, and after some 15 years, many of them pretty good ones for the publication, I'm probably gonna let it go. If "EW" is gonna continue to dumb down the contents, it's gonna have to "dumb down" the price a bit more. Maybe a super-cheapo last-minute deal will sway me.

*My final point is that magazines (and newspapers) are charging more and more for less and less, and they wonder why we don't buy them as often anymore. Yeah, some of the big periodicals are running striking spreads telling us how much we still love magazines, but the mags themselves are making it a lot harder.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

True Confessions: Ride like the wind

Does anyone else, upon hearing Christopher Cross' "Ride Like the Wind" over the central sound system at the grocery store, immediately visualize themselves as a figure in some kind of thrilling chase sequence?

It's just me? No, it isn't! You lie. You LIE!

Yesterday wasn't the first time I've heard this particular song in a supermarket; nor will it be the last. Christopher Cross' brand of energetic Velveeta sailing "rock" will always be a perfect fit for store radio programmers looking to soothe yet kind of stimulate their customers.

The song triggers something in me that is more stirring than soothing, though. I pretend I'm a fugitive from international law (or something--what the hell kind of trouble DID Chris Cross get into that made him have to ride like the wind, anyway?) even as I gather my groceries. After all, I've got such a long way to go to make it to the border of Mexico that you can bet I'm gonna need provisions.

Milk: Check!
Bread: Check!
Sudafeds: Check. Hey, us fugitives have to fight colds as well as multi-agency manhunts, you know.
Rice: All right, this isn't as practical, but it was on sale.
Glazed doughnut with chocolate icing: Well, I'm entitled to a treat, aren't I? Besides, all that riding like the wind will burn off the empty calories.

I'd like to write that I had just time to assemble these items before making a furtive glance or two around me then darting out the store, but the truth is much less glamorous. I actually gave a polite nod to a lady who was ambling through the bakery section with her cart (though I DID entertain a suspicion that she was an undercover agent), went to the self-checkout, and paid for everything--with my own credit card, no less, a sequence which probably violated about 10 different rules of Cool Fleeing.

And anyway, the song was over well before then because I lingered in the magazine section to look at football previews.

Christopher Cross would be ashamed of me, perhaps, but the bottom line is I did make it out of the store and wasn't followed back to my house. I still have a long way to go (such a long way to go), but maybe I'll make it soon. And maybe Michael McDonald will be more forgiving.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Have a great weekend!

I'm taking a break for a few days, and I'll be back Sunday or Monday with a whole week of content and stuff. Till then, stay well, everyone!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

This Week in DVD

Death at a Funeral: A foreign film is remade by Neil LaBute with a cast that includes Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, and Tracy Morgan. I think it's safe to assume this ain't a stuffy art picture.
(OK, so the original was made in England by Frank Oz, but that still counts as a foreign film...kind of.)

Our Family Wedding: African-American and Mexican-American families must join forces when their families come together for a wedding. I guess it's progress that a black and white family getting together would be old hat as the basis for a screenplay. There is no truth to the rumor castmember Carlos Mencia stole all his dialogue from a George Lopez movie.

Tapped: This documentary professes to "expose the dark side of the bottled water industry." Great Scott, man, I don't have a problem with Penn and Teller saying bottled water is useless, but now we have to worry about it for health reasons?

Bugs and Daffy DVDs: These look like decent enough collections of two of the best Looney Tunes Superstars, but I get a kick out of the official description on Netflix for the Bugs disc, which touts that the toons are "never before offered in this format." Well, yeah, Warner Brothers, because you had a perfectly good format called the Golden Collection, which offered more cartoons, more extras, and more overall value, and a lot of fans were happy with that.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Brooks on Books: "Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music" by Greg Kot

This is a fun read, with Kot's research and interviews elevating book from just another rant about how stupid the major record labels are into something much more enlightening. Don't get me wrong; I love reading about how stupid the music industry has been, is, and probably will be, but by now, you need something else to turn it into a worthwhile full-length book.

Kot's "something else" is his analysis and reporting of not just how traditional recorded music declined as an industry, but how artists responded to it. He devotes individual chapters to the stories of how particular artists adapted to technological change. This does not include just dealing with file sharing and fighting Napster, though that is a huge part of it, but also various other strategies in recording and performing music as well as distributing it. Preceding each chapter is a snapshot of a fan and that fan's attitude towards something like file sharing.

The approach allows for a wide range of topics and musicians, though there is a heavy emphasis on indie/alternative rock. Even if you are not particularly interested in the work of an Arcade Fire or a Death Cab for Cutie, you can enjoy reading about their strategies and approaches to functioning as working artists in a digital age. There are also profiles of bigger names like Prince and Wilco.

While the basics of events such as Radiohead's experiment with a "pay what you feel it is worth" approach to releasing an album may seem familiar, Kot's reporting provides detail and perspective. Then there are chapters that shed light on less-covered topics. For example, I was familiar with the music news/reviews site Pitchfork, but I knew little about its origins, and Kot makes it a compelling story in and of itself but also the basis for a broader exploration of Internet music blogs in general.

"Ripped" merits an easy thumbs up for music fans, both those who are familiar with how technology is changing the industry and those who have tried their best to avoid those details so they can just focus on the tunes and not the iTunes.

OK, let me say something good about PBS today...

In fairness to the local PBS station I ranted about for yanking "Doc Martin" in the middle of its second series, the British import will return in a few weeks. Apparently, the displacement was only a "temporary" consequence of another interminable pledge season, but as we all know, there is nothing about a public TV pledge drive that can fairly be considered "temporary." So I'll stick to my plan of catching the show via other outlets.

However, I have to doff my virtual bucket hat to PBS for the fun pledge drive special I saw last weekend: "The Legendary Bing Crosby." I haven't seen the recent DVD box set containing a sampling of Der Bingle's TV specials, but this program was a nice distillation of the many years' worth of programming they comprised. The talking heads who showed up to discuss the crooner weren't annoying (not even Regis!), and the performance clips were enjoyable.

One highlight: A clip (actually not from a Bing special, but rather from "The Frank Sinatra Show") of Crosby, Ol' Blue Eyes, and Dean Martin doing a number from "Guys and Dolls" in predictably loose fashion.

It seems that most of the programming I really enjoy on public television comes from APT, and this is no exception. Bravo, APT, and there's my positive comment about PBS. It delivered a solid special that made fast-forwarding through the commercials worthwhile. Of course, I'm pretty sure I saw this on the other PBS affiliate on my system, not the one that dumped the Doc, and so I reserve my right to feel spiteful about that outfit.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

True Confessions: Design Destination

OK, OK, I watched something on HGTV again the other night, but in my defense, I was with my wife, and besides, the focus of the show was the great nation of Aruba, also known as the honeymoon spot of yours truly and Mrs. Shark.

The concept of "Design Destination" makes for one super-sweet deal for the couple spotlighted. A big-shot TV designer (star of other HGTV productions, I'm told) sends the homeowners on a wonderful vacation (figuratively, I'm thinking, though it would be amusing to see scenes of her haggling with hotel owners and securing airfares), and they send back pictures and videos of their trip for "inspiration" as she redoes a problem spot in their house.

So, wait a minute, the lucky guy and gal gets an all-expenses-paid (again, I'm assuming, but HGTV might have made them kick in for expenses) vacation AND a makeover of a crappy part of their pad (in this case, the whole basement)? Sign me up!

What made this half-hour an enjoyable viewing experience for me and not a recipe for a good, old heap of seething resentment at someone else's good fortune was that the couple stayed at the same hotel we did in fabulous Aruba. The pair did many of the same activities and saw many of the same sights we did, too, which either means we planned our honeymoon well or else Aruba is just a damn small island.

As for the "inspiration" and design aspect, yeah, I guess that made some sense, but some of the connections were more obvious than others. I was skeptical of how the spiky aloe plants of the Aruban landscape inspired some of the decor, but even a slob like myself could understand why the big shot designer bought a huge ostrich egg to put in the basement. Aww, she's reminding the wife of the terror she felt when the mean birds nearly decapitated her while swarming for the food she was giving them!

This must be one of the best shows to be on--ever. Even if the designer misinterprets the videos you send back and does something wacky with your house, so what? You're still getting a remodeling job, and given that this couple consisted of a schoolteacher and a cop, I'm pretty sure it was all on the network's dime.

So, yeah, I watched some HGTV this weekend. Don't give me a hard time. It's an Aruban thing. I deserve a few moments to think about relaxing in the hot sun while I...uh, sit on my couch and think about how hot it is today.

5Q Movie Review: Toy Story 3

Q: OK, give it up: Did it make you cry?
A: Well, I may have had something in my eye, but--oh, OK, maybe I didn't blubber, but like many other Pixar films, this one had me going full-on Jack Paar with the misty eyes. I have no idea how this company does it, apart from the effective storytelling, the sharp characterization, and the evocative music.

Q: Is third installment as good as the first two?
A: It's been a long time since I've seen either "1" or "2" in its entirety, but for now I have to say...yes, almost as good. You can't get the joy of discovery from a second sequel, of course, but you can and do get another fine movie that utilizes the love you have of the characters. Maybe "3" is a notch below those two, but it more than justifies itself, and that alone is an achievement in this era of seemingly automatic sequelization.

Q: Are the new characters as enjoyable as some of the missing ones?
A: Not to be disrespectful, but I think the franchise will survive the loss of Bo Peep. Ned Beatty does an awesome job as Lots-o-huggin' Bear, a toy whose "arc" might be guessable to some but still contains some interesting angles and moves. Then there is Michael Keaton having a blast as Ken. The character is how you might expect a Ken doll to be in a "Toy Story" movie but still with some surprises, and it's such a great performance you never think that the filmmakers are just playing into old Ken/Barbie jokes.

Q: Would you see a fourth?
A: I was skeptical of the potential of a third, but if Pixar can come up with another great concept, I'll go see it. That said, "Toy Story 3" offers a beautiful sense of both closure and new beginnings, and it would serve as a perfect end chapter for a trilogy. I'm tempted to say it "should" serve as a perfect end chapter, but I'm not gonna deny them if they think they can do it again.

Q: Can Pixar do anything wrong in your eyes? And when are you gonna go see another movie in a theater, you old man?
A: Hey, I'll get around to seeing "Inception"...maybe. I can't get to dozens of flicks a year anymore. As for Pixar, well, I finally saw "Wall-E" recently and thought it was just OK. But when the studio keeps producing outstanding movies, I like to keep praising 'em. "Toy Story 3" has it all: laughs, emotions, a thoughtful storyline, accessible ideas to chew on, and just a heckuva lot of fun. And don't underestimate the adventure aspect of the movie: One sequence in particular in which the characters face impending doom is so brilliant in its execution it puts you on the edge of your seat. I know that's a cliche, but I'm telling you, I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat.

So "Toy Story 3" is another winner, and as someone who may only get to see one movie with his wife in a theater this year, I can say if this is it, I picked well.

Friday, August 6, 2010

This Week in DVD

Kick-Ass: I may gamble a buck on a Redbox rental for this, but part of me thinks if I want to see kids swearing and beating people up, I'll just go visit the local middle school. And then another part of me thinks, nah, I don't really want to see that at all.

The Ghost Writer: You know, no matter how bad things get on screen in "Kick-Ass," it's still probably not as bad as what Roman Polanski has done in real life. But looking at the list of new titles, I feel confident in saying "The Ghost Writer" is the best movie directed by a rapist to be released this week.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The popular series of novels for youngsters becomes a movie, and...well, it's still a popular series of novels.

Max Headroom The Complete Series: I am more familiar with Max Headroom: The Icon or Max Headroom: The Pepsi ads. I really don't remember if the show was any good, and I'm not sure why I never got into it. Yep, I'm full of info this week.

Hawaii Five-0 Season 9: 9 seasons of any old-school hit on DVD is a real accomplishment in 2010. By the way, I have heard that Scott Caan blows star Alex O'Loughlin off the screen in the remake. What does that say about your starpower when Scott Caan blows you off the screen?

TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures: A set of Flynn's war movies bundled with extras like newsreels? And even the one double-dip movie (previously available "Objective Burma") has a new commentary track? Welcome back, Warner Brothers Catalog DVD Department! We missed you! Unfortunately, I think "TCM Spotlight" is a classier way of saying, "You ain't gonna see THIS one marked down to 15 bucks at Costco this Christmas, bucko!"

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Earlier this morning on "Sea Hunt"...

Well, after my tease last night, surely you're all wondering if in fact it WAS an octopus that killed a deep sea diver on this morning's episode of "Sea Hunt."

Here are two clues: 1) The name of the episode is "The Octopus Story." 2) Before the opening credits, we see a hapless diver succumbing to a vicious underwater an octopus! No suspense in this, then. Sure as water is wet, Mike Nelson has to deal with a killer octopus in this episode!

Mike is leading an underwater expedition when one of the group is felled by the 8-limbed beast, only nobody realizes it at first because the shutterbug of the foursome ditched the victim to get some good shots. Together, Mike and the two survivors figure out soon enough that while octopi don't normally cause any trouble--and murder counts as "trouble" in my book--there's something going on in this lagoon. So they all go back into the depths to get some octopus blood! Well, to get some answers, really, but the long shots of underwater swimming (this is "Sea Hunt," mind you) become more palatable if you think of Mike holding a longtime grudge against the animal and snarling, "The only good octopus is a DEAD octopus," before diving back into the waters.

In reality, Mike is more baffled than anything else by the development, and he doesn't take it personally even when another killer octopus attacks him. Now, "killer octopus" looks like a contradiction in terms, but "Sea Hunt" does a good job of making the usually lovable creature into a devious, bloodthirsty menace. There's the murder at the beginning of the episode, the menacing musical score, and the portentous narration by Lloyd Bridges as Nelson to put over the concept of the octopus as terror of the seas. Plus, of course, there is the cool underwater cinematography vivifying the battles between man and fish--uh, man and aquatic mammal--uh, man and thing, whatever it is.

We get two big battles before the end of the episode, and each looks destined to end with a real-life Doc Ock raising his 8 arms over his head, but...
Mike figures out a way to defeat the cephalopod (OK, I went to Wikipedia after writing the last paragraph). Stabbing it repeatedly fails, but after getting a brainstorm, Mike sticks his hand in its gill and cuts off its air supply. It's an effective technique, I'll admit, but a sleeperhold would have made for much better television.

The end result is all that matters, though. Mike saves the day and lives to track killer octopi all over the globe, the underwater photographer lives to take more pics of surprisingly dangerous aquatic life, and the other guy lives on to make playful jests to his fiancee about her taking pics. Meanwhile, I live on to go rent "Tentacles" and find out whether or not Shelley Winters can stick her hand in an octopus' gill. If so, I think it's safe to call this a 100% happy ending.

The Doctor is out

A few weeks ago, a local PBS station started showing ITV series Doc Martin. I enjoyed the 6 first-series episodes and looked forward to continued installments. Well, last week, the channel showed the first two episodes of Series 2, but this week: nothing. Next week: nothing.

In fact, there is no sign of "Doc Martin" on this channel's program schedule in the foreseeable (or at least searchable) future. I don't know if this is because of the current infernal pledge drive--the fourth or fifth this year, I think--but it seems likely.

So here is what I am and am not going to do:

I AM going to watch more "Doc Martin" episodes.

I AM going to either rent them or watch them online.

I AM NOT going to wait for this PBS affiliate to show them.

I AM NOT going to give this PBS affiliate any money whatsoever. Ever.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tomorrow morning on "Sea Hunt"...

Here's what my FIOS on-screen program guide says is gonna happen on tomorrow morning's (late tonight's) episode of "Sea Hunt" on THIS-TV:

Mark must decide whether the marks on the body of a dead diver are from a killer octopus.

Uh...DUH! Are there 8 of them? Then it's a killer octopus! Am I right or am I right?

Well, you can bet I'm tuning in to see what I'm missing here.

Journey Into DVD: Semi-Tough

If ever a DVD presentation of a movie cried out for a special edition, or at least a package offering some kind of bonus material to elaborate on the filmmakers' intentions, it would be "Semi-Tough." Unfortunately, all we get on the current disc is the original trailer. Yippee!

See, Michael Ritchie's 1977 film adaptation of the classic sports novel veers quite a bit from the source material, and I'd like to know why. The movie is OK, with some moments of insight and wit, but it is nowhere near the brilliance of Dan Jenkins' book--at least from my perspective. But maybe I'm missing something. So a featurette or two, if not a commentary, would be nice.

The book, which I raved about a year and a half ago, is more about football. Oh, it's about life and love and all that sort of thing, too, but it always feels like a football book. In the film, the sport really is in the background for large chunks, and the screenplay devotes much of its energies and screen time to social commentary on America in the seventies--specifically, a takeoff on trendy self-help movements like Werner Erhard's est (Erhard Seminars Training). Now, I was too young to have been lured into the grasp of est, but I read enough of my dad's "Mad" magazines to get a general idea of what it was about. Still, I wasn't around then, so maybe I'm lacking a certain sense of the day that would elevate "Semi-Tough" for me.

Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson play pro football teammates engaged in a vague love triangle of sorts with Jill Clayburgh, who plays the daughter of the team's owner. The movie takes us on a detour into an organization called B.E.A.T. (Bismark Earthwalk Action Training) as Kristofferson's Shake Tiller joins the movement. Then Burt's Billy Clyde Puckett (a classic name if I've ever heard one, and one that should have translated into a classic movie character) joins up as well...or does he?

Eh, I'm sure the commentary is very cutting, but I'm not as interested in this material as I am in what Jenkins gives us in his hilarious novel. As an example of what Ritchie sacrifices by emphasizing the B.E.A.T. storyline, I give you T.J. Lambert. The novel's Lambert is a brute but also an acclaimed master at the art of flatulence. The movie's Lambert is a hulking figure, and he does get to dangle an innocent woman off a rooftop, but do we see Brian Dennehy lighting up the screen with an array of impressive farts? No, we don't. Talk about a wasted opportunity...

But here is something Ritchie gains by using the Walter Bernstein screenplay: The eternal awesomeness of Bert Convy as the Erhard stand-in, Friedrich Bismark. When Burt and Jill experience the B.E.A.T. training, we see Bert Convy enter the room and tell the attendees they're a bunch of a--holes. At this point, I'm able to cast aside my disappointment with the rest of the film and recognize that here is something to enjoy. Now, here is an example of why it may be better to watch Semi-Tough with a modern, non-1977 perspective.

See, I suspect most moviegoers in 1977 saw Convy merely as the actor, game show host, and amiable showbiz personality he was. But if you grew up on Convy not just on "Tattletales," but on "Super Password" and "Win, Lose, or Draw," you know the man as an authority figure. Sure, he may have flubbed a clue every other episode. Granted he may have given off the aura of someone who never had total control of the games over which he presided. I will concede that by "Win, Lose, or Draw," his status as a proud member of the Burt Pack may have overshadowed his status as respected statesman of television. But those of us who grew up on Bert Convy knew--and we know--better. Bert is The Man, so when we hear him tell people they are a bunch of a--holes, we believe that they really are a--holes. Hell, we might even be tempted to join B.E.A.T. ourselves, even though the movie itself questions it and even though, well, frankly, it doesn't exist. Simply out, Bert wins out over Burt, if not within the story, within the hearts and minds of the viewers.

Yeah, His Burtness is at his cocky best, if you like that Burt, and there are some good scenes. But the plot brings down "Semi-Tough" way more than it should considering what great stuff it had to work with, and as a result the mind wanders and latches onto things like Bert Convy calling people a--holes. I wish there were more info on that DVD that might raise my appreciation of what everyone was going for here, but the sparse disc leaves me thinking "Semi-Tough" is a disappointing adaptation of a superb book.