Category Archives: Television

TV Review: Red, White & Puke

Macy’s Fourth Of July Fireworks Spectacular
July 4
NBC

Review by ROBERT SMITH

Photo by HERLENE SMITH

We have reached the point in the never-ending dumbing down of America that TV networks can’t even broadcast a fireworks display without the viewer eventually lusting to throw red, white, and blue bricks at his own HDTV unit.  We must ask: How in the good name of the Gruccis can they manage to mess up a televised fireworks display? Isn’t it – and shouldn’t it be –  pointing some high-def cameras at the sky, and allowing the viewing public to enjoy?

Not any longer.  July 4’s Macy’s fireworks special from New York City on NBC was unwatchable, overproduced, and, well, sickening; the event was about as sincerely patriotic as an evening in a Guyanese cathouse.  From the insipid, language-mangling host Nick Cannon to meaningless music (a lot of it taped) from the likes of flavor-of-the-month Justin Bieber to appearances from the cast of whatever Twilight film is out this week, the entire production was geared toward getting brain-addled tweens to stop Tweeting during the holiday weekend.

Sure, all of the musical mediocrity was on display pretty much before the fireworks started – but yes, Virginia, they managed to screw up even the pyrotechnics display itself.  The telecast was nothing but endless crowd shots and the worst, remade quasi-patriotic music ever recorded – they actually played a voice singing “la la la” over patriotic songs at the top of the fireworks display.  Other pure schlock music was served up by such modern pop music atrocities as the a cappella abomination Straight No Chaser, which makes Rockapella sound like Parliament/Funkadelic.

The actual fireworks – as usual, best viewed from Queens without the disgusting music – might have been great, if you were on that side of the river. On NBC, the actual fireworks were presented as pretty much an afterthought.

Know what would have been more patriotic than ogling Taylor Lautner’s pecs? How about 11,000 or so righteous, intelligent  Americans peacefully holding signs with sayings such “Our Sons & Daughters Out Of Afghanistan & Iraq Now!”  At least, it would have put a proper, somber, meaningful touch on this year’s July 4 holiday.  Our put-upon troops are what we should be celebrating, as well as an assembled wish for logic from our people and our government, with hope for peace and prosperity for all.

Instead, here’s Maxim girl Kristen Stewart, who is still a good girl since she didn’t choose Playboy in which to pose semi-nude.

What a country.

© 2010 Robert Smith

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The Three Stooges: Digitally Remastered Delirium

Reviews by ROBERT SMITH

A few months back, my esteemed colleague, Steve Ricci, noted how The Three Stooges were influential in his life. I now happily report that last month, a significant moment in Stooge history was logged. It was in early June that the eighth and last in Columbia’s lovingly digitally remastered box sets of complete, uncensored, and restored Three Stooges films, The Three Stooges Collection, was issued on DVD; these 190 films have never been completely released on DVD before this. Combined with AMC’s recent decision to return Stooges shorts to its regular lineup of classic films, there is – as seems to happen every decade or so – a serious case of Stoogemania going on. It couldn’t have happened at a better time.

For serious Stooge aficionados, these DVD collections are truly an answered prayer. The Stooge shorts have not only been released in chronological order, but many of these films have never looked so clear, and in some cases, new. The remastering job isn’t without its pitfalls; a couple of packages come with 3D glasses for films released originally in that format, but they still look awful. As well, the overall remastering job is actually so good it reveals everything in pristine black and white – including pies being pulled from ceilings with strings, and what used to look like flying Stooge heads in the opening of Spooks! now show Moe, Shemp, and Larry in black cloaks, running around as if they’d lost their minds (as if that’s anything unusual). It’s actually fun to see the old-time movie magic exposed.

So let us sing the praises of these master comedians, who have been underrated since their heyday, but answer me this: Are television stations still showing Charlie Chaplin? The Marx Brothers? Laurel & Hardy? Yet, times come and go, and Stooge shorts are still being shown on national networks, some films being a whopping 76 years old. It is testament to The Three Stooges’ knockabout, zany comedy that it can still be appreciated and loved by audiences after such a passage of time. The reason? The Stooges are damn hilarious, that’s why.

A look at the sets: Volume One, which covers 1934 to 1936, begins with the first Stooges short, Woman Haters, a musical number so stilted it’s a wonder the team ever got a second go. But things pick up with the boxing-themed Punch Drunks, and the hospital parody Men In Black, which was actually nominated for an Academy Award. Indeed, “Dr. Howard! Dr. Fine! Dr. Howard!” is quoted to this day, and few Stooge efforts were ever funnier.

Volume 2, 1937-1939: The Stooges, Larry Fine and Moe and Curly Howard, find the formula, and it works like gangbusters. Highlights here are Playing The Ponies, where the trio leads a nag called Thunderbolt to racing glory; Healthy, Wealthy, and Dumb, where the three idiots win a radio contest and rent a snazzy hotel room only to discover that after taxes they’re as broke as ever; and Violent Is The Word For Curly, which features the famous “bickey-bye” song that everyone still knows but can’t remember where it came from.

Volume 3, 1940-1942: The team is getting more popular, the slapstick is getting more violent thanks to the burgeoning presence of director Jules White, and this just might the Stooges’ prime. The best here include the classic Nazi era satires I’ll Never Heil Again and You Nazty Spy!, All The World’s A Stooge, where Curly delivers one of his most manic and inspired performances impersonating a little kid (and Larry never looked more beautiful), and A Plumbing We Will Go, which might be the high point of the team’s career; it’s the classic “running from the law” Stooge short, complete with wacky pratfalls, high society torn asunder, and the best plumbers who ever plumbed a plum.

Volume 4, 1943-1945: Something’s wrong; Curly is slurring his words and the pace is starting to slow down. Around this period, the hard-partying rotund comedian began to fall into ill health – so much so that an impending stroke would not only end his career, but eventually his life as well. However, there’s still a lot of comic gold in this set, including Micro-Phonies, featuring Curly impersonating the golden-voiced Senorita Cucaracha; Dizzy Pilots, where The Wrong Brothers take to the sky; and If A Body Meets A Body, which features some hilarious haunted house gags. However, Curly really starts to fade during this set; White’s They Stooge To Conga is nothing but garishly filmed violence including Moe getting his eyes and ears poked with climbing spikes; and shorts such as Booby Dupes and I Can Hardly Wait, finally, start to miss their mark.

Volume 5, 1946-1948: With the film Half-Wits’ Holiday in 1946, exit a very weak and tired Curly, enter Shemp. The floppy-haired comic surely had his critics, most of whom claimed he wasn’t the comic genius Curly was. That’s true, but Shemp brought his own manic energy and pretty much brought the trio back to life for the next couple of years. Included here are his debut with the team, Fight Night, which is nothing but laughs, and Hold That Lion, featuring a cameo by Curly and yet another hysterical two minutes from frequent Stooge regular Dudley Dickerson.

Volume 6, 1949-1951: Just as the TV era starts to heat up, the Stooges begin to slow down. Film studios aren’t making many shorts by this point, with Stooge studio Columbia being among the last holdouts. It’s easy to see the budgets going downwards short by short here; rekindled footage is sprouting up regularly. There are finally films that just aren’t funny at all, and they’re becoming disturbingly common; wit is being replaced with violence and repeated gags and phrases. The Tooth Will Out and Baby Sitters Jitters are poorly directed and mirthless, but, thankfully, there are still gems: Hula La La breaks the code and is one of the most original of all the Stooge shorts (a rare one of this period that doesn’t go by the book), and Malice In The Palace ranks with the best Stooges offerings of all time. Try not to crack up when the restaurant-owning Stooges supposedly serve up some “sliced dog and cat” to a pair of Arabian aristocrats.

Volume 7, 1952-1954: Bigger trouble in Stoogeland. Even more budget cuts forced the team to remake shorts from both the Curly and Shemp eras, and a lot of them are pretty much a waste of time. For instance, Rip Sew & Stitch is an almost note-for-note remake of the earlier, funnier Sing A Song Of Six Pants with just a couple of scenes re-shot. Few film fans or distributors noticed the cost cutting at the time – most theaters, at this point, were showing fewer and fewer shorts to begin with. There are laughs here with the western spoof Shot In The Frontier and in Shemp trying to install a TV antenna in Goof On The Roof, but things are getting sloppy and sad. The witless Pardon My Backfire is all new, but all unfunny, and Shemp and Moe are starting to look very old. Saddest of all, Shemp’s starting to look very, very tired.

Volume 8, 1955-1959: It’s all over but the slapping for the troupe; Shemp (the first 16 shorts here, again mostly remakes) suddenly dies, and is replaced by veteran comic Joe Besser for the trio’s final 16 efforts, after which Columbia shuts down its shorts division forever. Even the supporting players aren’t good; long gone are Stooge legends Duke York, Dickerson, Symona Boniface, Vernon Dent, and Christine McIntyre. Hardy and versatile player Emil Sitka helps, but other roles are filled by actors like the insipid Frank Sully, who delivers astoundingly awful performances. During the Besser shorts, Moe and Larry seem to be trying too hard, gesturing and overacting like madmen, probably realizing their new fat foil wasn’t up to the task. Besser, to his credit, was much more likable and funny working with Joey Bishop and Abbott & Costello; he simply seems out of place here. Still, two horse-themed shorts bring a few laughs, but Quiz Whizz, Outer Space Jitters, and the final Stooge short, Sappy Bullfighters, are as bad as any movies ever released by a major motion picture studio. As a Stooge fan that wanted to complete his collection, I purchased this set, but of the eight, this is the hardest to recommend.

Perhaps it’s nostalgia for my youth, waking up to watch a single Popeye cartoon and a Stooge short before heading off to school. Maybe it’s longing for a simpler time. Maybe, secretly, there’s a desire to bop my employer over the head with a lead pipe just to hear the beautiful steely “KONK!” sound. Whatever the reason, these lovingly remastered, low-priced collections are perfect for anyone who ever loved The Three Stooges. And how I do dearly love them.

I believe that after all these years, I’ve figured out the reasons why. Moe, Curly, and Shemp Howard, as well as Larry Fine, Joe Besser, and Joe DeRita (the last Curly replacement), never became millionaires from acting as most of today’s film stars do. However, even as an old man before his death in 1975, Moe always was trying to find ways to keep the Stooges going. He reportedly was going to team with DeRita and Sitka even after Larry could no longer go on. One gets the feeling that if Moe were alive today at 113 years old, he’d still be a member of The Three Stooges. From all accounts, Moe Howard, the brains of the group in real life as well as on-screen, loved what he did, every moment, every poke, every pie fight, and every slap. A magazine article printed just before Moe’s death reported that the elderly comedian saw a child in a store, and at that moment, he became a Stooge again, delighting the kid with impromptu, crazy antics. Moe Howard was born to be a Stooge. If someone loves what he does that much, he’s got soul and heart, and those are attributes too few of today’s entertainers possess.

But I think it all really boils down to this: When a Stooges scene shifts to a hotel, and to let you know, a sign is shown with the name “Hotel Costa Plente,” I still laugh like a hyena. Yeah, those corny old men still crack me up.

May their heirs be richly blessed, every one of them. Dare I say, few people on this earth have given this writer more pure joy than The Three Stooges. May they poke, slap, gouge, and woo-woo-woo till the end of time. And if you don’t get to the store to pick up these beautiful DVD collections, well, you’re just a knucklehead.

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… & It Really, Really Works

By ROBERT SMITH

Like Dan Aykroyd’s classic Irwin Mainway character in those classic early “Saturday Night Live” sketches, companies are always trying to put their hands in your pockets. It’s easy to be cynical in this Internet-driven, infomercial world, but sometimes – as rare as it might seem – some of the products sold though mass media can actually be decent. Amazingly, not every TV product is a get-rich-quick scheme, dubious male enhancement product, or “miracle” food preparation device.

The cheap plastic food prep stuff draws the biggest laughs from this corner. One of our infomercial shows on the airwaves these days concerns the Magic Bullet blender, a chopping/blending device so small that you practically have to pre-cut most every type of solid food that goes into it. So why not just keep going with the knife you used in the first place? We like a “full family meal” as much as the next guy, but cleaning our food processors and blenders doesn’t rank all that high on our list of problems.

While perusing the Rite-Aids and Walgreens of our neighborhood (frankly, those who order products directly from TV ads pay ridiculously inflated shipping and handling charges), in recent months we’ve become exceedingly bold and actually tried a handful of the products you see on the tube virtually every day. Miracle of miracles, some really, really work!

It all started with The George Foreman Grill and the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie; the makers of these excellent products deserve a tip of the cap for making goods that aren’t scams in the least, and they do what they are intended to do. Here are more recent products, all available through many brick-and-mortar stores no matter where you live, that are shockingly excellent:

The Swivel Sweeper G2: It works! This little mini-vacuum cleaner actually does a pretty fair job cleaning rugs and bare floors, and it’s so light that even kids and seniors can handle it with ease. The product has gotten even better recently with the addition of levers on the top of the canister that enable hands-free emptying of the dirt tray. Well worth the $40 or so you’ll pay for it (swivelsweeper.com).

MagicJack: It works! A recent sampling of MagicJack proved the service provided by this little plug contraption offers VOIP home phone service that’s as good (or better) than cable company phone services, and it’s a whole lot cheaper. Yes, you have to leave a computer on to use the phone or receive calls, but since the service includes voice mail, it’s virtually the same as using an answering machine. MagicJack’s faux “home shopping”-style infomerical is the worst such show for just about the best product available through TV. Go figure. However, those pondering switching from monthly phone service to MagicJack might want to give this a tumble; consider your lifestyle before making the move. Even Consumer Reports liked this device. (magicjack.com)

The Titan Peeler: It works! This sharp, well-constructed little slicer is one of the best ways to cut and slice vegetables we’ve ever tried, and it comes packaged with a versatile little mandolin board. This is a shockingly durable kitchen tool you’ll use for the rest of your life … uh oh; we’re starting to sound like Ron Popeil … (titanpeelersale.com)

UGlu Glue Strips: It works! A simple idea: Glue strips that peel off patches of fabric. This is such a good idea we’re shocked no one thought of it years ago. Actually, someone had; UGlu was available at hardware-type stores before some genius decided to make some splashy TV ads (getuglu.com).

Turbo Snake: It works! Another simple idea: Take a plumber’s snake and shrink it down to several inches long, and you get the idea of the Turbo Snake. This handy little contraption clears out clogged bathroom sinks far better and safer than toxic liquid drain cleaners, and it’s built to last. At about $10, this is the best buy of any of these products (buytheturbosnake.com).

HD Vision Ultra Sunglasses: It works! Well, we like’em, in both the wraparound and regular versions, but obviously these aren’t for everyone – just like no one kind of sunglasses are perfect for everyone’s particular vision needs. That being said, these are what we reach for first on bright, sunny days (buyhdvision.com).

TV Travails: Here’s a compendium of products told through television that you should at least think twice about: ShamWow (it’s … a towel); Invicta watches sold on ShopNBC (a D+ rating at The Better Business Bureau only begins to tell the story of the “quality” of these timepieces); any infomercial that looks sorta kinda like the Larry King show; any “health supplement” or exercise equipment sold via infomercials; and anything hawked by Kevin Trudeau – who actually has been banned from selling anything but books via infomercials and has been found guilty of credit card fraud, yet has reached the New York Times bestseller list a couple of times with titles such as Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You To Know About, despite warnings from groups such as The New York State Consumer Protection Board.

Thinking about that last one, we finally figured out how George W. Bush got elected to a second term.

We wouldn’t buy anything manufactured by Robert Smith.

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Ask Til It Hurts

by Steve Ricci


…and, so, the uvula stands guard, ever vigilant, ever pendulous, ever guttural; our silent sentinel in the throat…

“Wow! Wasn’t that fascinating? Hello, I’m program director Sedgewick Dimsdale, and welcome back to PBS. We hope you’ve been enjoying Uvula: The Heart of Darkness, part six of our ground-breaking 12-part documentary series, Upside Your Head, which explores those lesser-known, yet critical, components inside each of our heads. Personally, I’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering what that quivering little blob of flesh hanging at the back of my throat was. Now, thanks to the magic of public television, we ALL know.

“I hope you also know that, when you support the outstanding programs of PBS, you make it possible for us to continue bringing you such fine educational television offerings. And supporting PBS has never been easier. If you’ve been enjoying Upside Your Head and would like to make it part of your family’s science library, you can own it on 11 DVDs or 36 VHS cassettes for a six-month membership fee of only $875. As a special bonus, if you order with your DISCOVER card within the next 21 minutes, we will include this limited-edition collector’s series booklet, Blemished Cretaceous. This riveting companion publication to the popular PBS documentary series narrated by Regis Philbin attempts to answer a question that has plagued paleontologists for decades: did prehistoric reptiles suffer from chronic acne?

“And, coming up later tonight, we have another compelling installment of our award-winning news magazine, Clarification, which takes a hard-hitting look at the dangerously unsanitary world of inner-city pushcart falafel vending. But it’s not just about science and news at PBS. Here to tell you about some of our superb entertainment programming is our station manager JoEllen Klauf. Take it away, JoEllen.”

“You’re exactly right, Sedgewick; the entertainment abounds on PBS this month and it’s all free, brought right into your living room each night, at no charge, with no obligation from you, and no expectation that you’ll actually have to give us anything for all this totally free stuff we are providing at no cost to you in terms of not actually having to pay anything.

“Starting next week, we are proud to debut an exhilarating and gritty new crime drama, The Lolly Crumpet Mysteries, starring Lynn Redgrave as the inscrutable Mrs. Crumpet, an elderly British detective who scoots about the English countryside in her 1956 Nash Rambler, hunting deranged serial killers with the help of her clairvoyant dachshund, Cornelia.”

“I don’t want to interrupt, JoEllen, but I thought our viewers might like to know that the Lolly Crumpet Mysteries recently received a United Kingdom Bronze Telly Award nomination for best landscaping in a limited-run mini-series.”

“That’s exactly right, Sedgewick. Just another indication of the quality programming available here on PBS. And, speaking of quality programming, following Mrs. Crumpet is another fine episode of our popular live concert series, Unsung Maestros, featuring a never-before-seen musical salute to the Treaty of Ghent by Umbombo Mbwatu, legendary master of the Ugandan tongue flute. But the musical pièce de résistance this month is our exclusive premier of Ken Burns’s latest nine-part epic documentary, Kazoo: An American Instrument. In honor of this historic film event, we are offering our members an exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime offer: free with your two-year renewal fee of only $3,500, you will receive this 14-kt gold-plated kazoo personally signed by Mr. Burns and complete with a certificate of authenticity. Please allow 12 to 18 weeks for mailing.

“But wait, there’s more!

“New and renewing members will also receive a complimentary subscription to our monthly programming guide, What Else is On? which tells you pretty much everything you can already find in any newspaper’s weekly TV supplement but with slightly larger type. I don’t know, Sedgewick, how can you beat that?”

“Boy, I don’t think you can JoEllen. Okay, our time is nearly up and I know how anxious you are to find out more about your head parts, so we are going to return you now to part seven of Upside Your Head, The Frenulum: Hold Your Tongue. But before we do, let me remind you once again how important your support is to maintaining the kind of quality and value you’ve come to expect from PBS.

“Pledge today. Learn tomorrow. Okay, now back to our show…”

… Presentation of Upside Your Head is made possible through the generous support of viewers willing to endure the 25 minutes of obsequious groveling needed to pay for each hour of PBS programming.

© 2009 Steve Ricci

Steve Ricci is a writer, editor, and photographer with no discernible middle name.

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Filed under Current events, Entertainment, Humor, Posts by Steve Ricci, Public Television, Television