October 27, 2009

Don't Miss ESPN's 30 for 30

ESPN’s 30 for 30 is an ambitious documentary series that presents 30 sports-related films from acclaimed directors, including John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood), Barry Levinson, and even Ice Cube. Each Tuesday a new feature premieres and thus far we’ve been treated to Peter Berg’s King’s Ransom (which traces the events surrounding Wayne Gretzky’s trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the L.A. Kings) and Mike Tollin’s Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

I must say I wasn’t digging Levinson’s The Band That Wouldn't Die, which reflected on what happened in Baltimore after the Colts’ departure for Indianapolis. Still, overall, 30 for 30 has been fantastic. In the coming months, we can look forward to Unmatched, covering the friendship and rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova; The Best That Never Was, about former Oklahoma running back Marcus DuPree, and The Two Escobars, which examines the murder of Columbian soccer player Andres Escobar after his own goal led to Columbia’s elimination from the 1994 World Cup.

Tonight’s feature is Muhammad and Larry, a memoir of the events surrounding the 1980 heavyweight between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes. At the time, the legendary Ali was challenging champion and former sparring partner Holmes and attempting to win the title for a fourth time. Ali got into his best shape in years, but Holmes, despite not having any real competition during his entire title reign, was a great and underrated heavyweight in his prime. He beat Ali badly, much to my disappointment. I know firsthand because I watched the fight live on closed circuit television, which for you youngsters out there was sort of a predecessor to pay-per-view -- except instead of being able to watch in the comfort of your home, you had to go to a movie theater or other public venue.)

And as a footnote to this story, I reached into the Pop Culture Fiend Archives and found this 29 year old ticket stub from that 

October 22, 2009

Shout Out to: The Force M.D.s

An incredibly unique vocal group from the mid-80s, the Force M.D.s were true pioneers, practically inventing the fusion of rap music and 1950s-style harmonies best described as "hip-hop/doo-wop".

Coming out of Staten Island, New York (no, they're not doctors -- the "M.D." stands for "Musical Diversity") these were five gifted guys that, unlike most of their contemporaries, could sing and harmonize on par with the best R&B groups (think The Treacherous 3 meets The Impressions.)

After signing with Tommy Boy Records in 1984, Force M.D.s had a string of R&B radio hits including the rousing "Let Me Love You" and "Forgive Me Girl", and the heartfelt ballads "Tears" and "Here I Go Again". The group went on to score their biggest hits with 1985's "Tender Love" (#10 on Billboard's Pop chart) and 1987's "Love is a House" (#1 R&B).

Unfortunately, subsequent albums didn't enjoy as much success and the group's popularity began to wane. In the 90s, The Force M.D.'s fell on hard times, as two of the original members passed away and the group slipped into obscurity.

Still, it wasn't until the emergence of Boyz II Men and their debut album CooleyHighHarmony in 1991 that we heard anything approximating the unique musical style of The Force M.D.s. "Tender Love" is one of the most covered R&B hits of the 80s and has directly influenced the work of Alicia Keys and others, and President Obama has stated the group was one of his favorites growing up.

Here's a three-minute mini-documentary about the Force M.D.s. Check out what hip-hop legends like Doug E. Fresh, DJ Red Alert, Kurtis Blow and Melle Mel have to say about the group's originality and impact.

Shout Out to: The Sorels

Shout Out to: Dara Torres
Shout Out to: Lippy the Lion
Shout Out to: Found Item Clothing
Shout Out to: "The Payback"

October 20, 2009

Reality Used To Be A Friend Of Mine: The Problem With Reality TV

Let me preface what I'm about to write by stating for the record that I do not hate reality television. Over the years, I have been an on and off watcher of, among others, The Real World, American Idol, The Bachelor, and Dancing With the Stars. Aw hell, I'm even guilty of watching crap like Temptation Island, Beauty and the Geek, and Scott Baio is 45 and Single. But things have gotten out of hand…

It was past 12 AM, the very early morning hours of a Sunday morning, and I was up late doing chores around the house. SNL was a repeat so I flipped through the channels and soon settled for what was on the E channel. It was The Girls Next Door. Now I don’t watch this show, but I was planning on going to bed in about a half an hour anyway, so I figured I’d just leave it on, finish my chores and hit the sack.

As it turns out, this particular episode of TGND provided a snapshot that nicely underscored the first of the fundamental problems with reality TV. So the show starts and Kendra comes to the Playboy mansion and tells Hugh Hefner (who's looking more and more like a feeble baby bird every day) that she wants to start a softball league. Hef finishes off his can of Ensure and then agrees to bankroll this thing -- so Kendra sets about recruiting players (mostly other Playmates), procuring uniforms and otherwise organizing the game. Now admittedly, watching Kendra sit in an office applying every bit of her brain power towards assembling a team (“Let’s see, we need a pitcher… first baseman… second baseman… umm… third baseman...") was beyond hilarious, but as I continued watching, I thought, “This… right here, is what’s wrong with reality television.” Let me explain:

It indulges and rewards the undeserving.

From what I can tell, the whole point of The Girls Next Door is to document the lives of the young ladies that Hefner (who has gone from a trailblazing hero of the publishing world, to sad fop and punchline to endless Viagra jokes) has chosen to house, clothe, and otherwise support in luxury, simply for being naked in the pages of his magazine, and in some cases, in private as well (or so they would have us believe.)

But what have Kendra, Bridget, Holly, the Kardashians, or any of these people done to deserve this type of indulgence? They, like many reality TV personalities are largely unskilled and unaccustomed to working for what they want in life. Yet they all rather easily go on to gain careers as singers, actors and actresses, TV hosts, or business entrepreneurs. Worse still, all too often they're able to maintain and grow their fame simply because they’re on TV.

Would Elizabeth Hasselbeck, for example, be a fixture on a successful morning show (The View) had she not been the cute girl on Survivor 2? And would someone as young and inexperienced as The Hills star Lauren Conrad EVER have been given the kind of job opportunities she’s been given (and have her own clothing at the age of 23) had she not been a reality show star?

The answer in both cases is a resounding no. But reality show producers believe for some reason that because we rooted for Hasselbeck on Survivor, we'd naturally want to see her every morning and hear her ridiculous "Obama is a socialist", "Liberals control the media" right-wing opinions.

These same producers also believe that without the leg up (jobs, apartments, connections) that they provided to Conrad, watching her try to make an honest go of it in the fashion world would be too long, drawn out and boring of a process. So instead of letting their subject sink or swim on their own, "reality" shows too often offer these life-altering short cuts and free passes to people that haven’t done anything other than be lucky enough to be featured on a dopey TV show.

And I’m not talking about people on Top Chef or the contestants on American Idol. Idol, as played out as it is, retains some legitimacy because it's a completely open competition that rewards talented kids when they might otherwise go a lifetime living in anonymity. What that show’s done for Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood, and the rest has been tremendous, but those people EARNED what they got. They have a definable and clear-cut talent (singing) that few others could ever hope to have. But those like the aforementioned Conrad, and even moreso, her cohorts Heidi and Whitney?... I'm sorry, there’s just no way Heidi would ever have a singing career (or even be allowed anywhere near the microphone on karaoke night at Buffalo Wild Wings) based on her own merit. More recently, Whitney was set up in New York with her own series, The City, and a dream job working for Diane Von Furstenberg. (I feel for every fashion student that’s going to school, working an unpaid internship and/or holding down a part-time job to pay their tuition.)

What have any of these people done to deserve the breaks they’ve gotten and the lives they're living?

And still we all continue to invest in this. Reality show producers, and all of us who watch these shows and others like it, are the ones making it possible. So Kendra, who doesn’t seem to have the brains to organize a spirited game of “Duck, Duck, Goose”, gets the green light, funding, assistance (and assistants) she needs to make the softball game happen. It’s symptomatic of many of the reality shows we see today. Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami and the Run's House spinoff Daddy's Girls, for example, both star people with no appreciable talent or ability, and assume that viewers will want to watch as they’re given keys to the kingdom, that is, all the resources they need to painlessly start their own businesses and otherwise pursue their every whim, whether it be opening a clothing store, hosting a radio show or pursuing an acting career.
Why are we humoring these people? Watching a "reality" show where someone is basically living a charmed life where everything is handed to them on a silver platter is neither fun, interesting or "real" (more on this in Part 3 of this series.) Yet for every Project Runway or So You Think You Can Dance that shines a spotlight on the earnest and their bona fide efforts towards achievement and recognition, there are ten Brooke Know Best's that feature the frivolous and self-serving exploits of the under-qualified, over-privileged, and (at best) only marginally talented.

Even worse than these are the shows predicated on the fact that viewers will tune in to see individuals with nothing more to offer than their loathsome personalities and outrageous behavior.

Which brings me to the second thing wrong with reality TV…

Related Posts:
Reality Used To Be A Friend Of Mine: The Problem With Reality TV - Part II

October 14, 2009

Defining Films of the Decades - The 60s

Continuing the "Defining Films of the Decades" series I started some time ago, here are my choices for the 1960s. As a reminder, these films were chosen based on excellence, timelessness, and relevancy as it pertains to the decade in which it was released. This means it should in some way reveal or reflect the decades' current events, social issues, trends, tastes, mores, creative sensibilities or artistic styles.

The 60s

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Gregory Peck gives the performance of the decade as Atticus Finch, whom the American Film Institute named as the single greatest American movie hero of all-time. This film opened the eyes of many to what the power of dignity, principles, and forthrightness can accomplish in the face of oppression, ignorance and racism. In this regard, To Kill a Mockingbird provided inspiration for the American Civil Rights Movement that was reaching critical mass at the time.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
The Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and high command of the US political and military infrastructure, all perfectly satirized by Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers.

The Sound of Music (1965)
With perhaps the most cinematic opening shots ever, The Sound of Music is the third highest grossing film of all-time (after adjusting for inflation) thanks largely to its sweeping, majestic photography, Julie Andrews angelic singing voice, and the masterful songwriting of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The Graduate (1967)
The sixties were largely about counter-culture and railing against traditional thinking, lifestyles and conventions. Films like Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Bonnie and Clyde celebrated this and perpetuated the idea of the antihero. But in its own, more subtle way, The Graduate also had a lot to say about bucking prevailing mores and rejecting America’s “plastic” society. Forty-two years after their release, Simon & Garfunkel’s "Mrs. Robinson" and "Sounds of Silence" from film’s soundtrack are still mainstays on adult contemporary radio.

THE Defining Film of the 1960s:

Goldfinger (1964)
There were two earlier screen adaptations of Ian Fleming spy novels (Dr. No and From Russia with Love) but Goldfinger was the first to really zero in on the formula for a successful James Bond film -- girls, guns and gadgets. The result: a huge hit at the box office (the fifth highest grossing film of the decade) that propelled the popularity of the 007 character to all-time highs. Gert Frobe as Auric Goldfinger remains one of the most memorable villains in film history and Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore is still the ultimate “Bond Girl”.

Related Posts
Defining Films of the Decades - The 50s
Defining Films of the Decades - The 40s
Defining Films of the Decades - The 30s

October 9, 2009

More Fall TV Shows You Should Watch (and Not Watch)

That's right, we have no lives. What we do have is a big-ass TV, a buttload of cable channels, and the brains and taste needed to weed through a ton of new fall shows and tell you which are worth your valuable time. Don't thank us, just buy us a TiVo. We're still living in the Dark Ages videotaping everything.

The Middle

What it is:
The wife from Everybody Loves Raymond, the janitor from Scrubs, and their weird offspring.
A little more to go on:
A middle-class, slightly dysfunctional family with three kids all just trying to get by. So if you don’t count Family Ties, Malcolm in the Middle, Roseanne, According to Jim, Growing Pains, Full House, My Wife and Kids, and Family Matters, it’s a pretty original concept.

Premise: F
Lead Actors: C (We liked Patricia Heaton on Raymond and even in her failed followup Back to You, but not in this. She's a car salesman?... Seriously?)
Supporting Cast: D (Brian Doyle-Murray helps a little, but a sitcom where the kids aren’t cute or funny is a bad sign.)
Writing: F
Overall: F

The show aims for quirky, How I Met Your Mother-style comedy but misses the mark. I know we keep harping on it but the lack of a laugh track really hurts this show and the family and their foibles and eccentricities, which are meant to be droll and endearing, come off as annoying and pathetic. We honestly had trouble just getting through the first 15 minutes of the premiere episode. This one will be axed before Halloween.

Modern Family

What it is: The Office (the home version)
A little more to go on: Suburban dude in his fifties (Ed O’Neill) has a hot young Latina wife (Sofia Vergara) and a smart-alecky stepson. Meanwhile, another couple (Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell as her tool of a husband) struggle to relate to their teenage kids; and a gay guy and his overly dramatic life partner have just adopted a Vietnamese baby. Oh, and all of these people are related. Got it?

Premise: C
Lead Actors: B
Supporting Cast: B-
Writing: B+
Overall: B

Creator Steve Levitan (who also brought us the underrated Just Shoot Me) developed this obvious Office clone, right down to its documentary style. O’Neill, channeling a bit of his old Al Bundy character, is perfect as the family’s sarcastic, always slightly annoyed patriarch. The comedy is smart but comprehensible and the writers do a nice job of weaving storylines together. The gay characters, though somewhat trite, are also funny, but strangely, Bowen's family comes off as pretty normal. Once again we get no laugh track (I guess we’re supposed to be smart enough to figure out what’s funny all by ourselves) but in this case, it totally works.

Flash Forward

What it is: 24 meets Lost with a smattering of Fringe -- so I guess you could call it Frosty 4.)
A little more to go on: Based on a novel by Robert J. Sawyer, at the exact same moment, everyone on the planet goes unconscious for 90 seconds and has a vision of their future six months into the future. The FBI tries to figure what (or who) caused this and why at least one mysterious person was awake during the whole thing.

Premise: A
Lead Actors: B+
Supporting Cast: B+
Writing: B+
Overall: B+

A great cast that includes the Joseph Fiennes, Sonya Walger (HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me) and the always excellent Courtney B. Vance star in this series that expertly combines a paranormal premise with the suspense and “every episode a cliffhanger”- feel of 24, and just touch of the “what the f**k is happening” confusion of Lost. Apart from the main story of the blackout investigation, nearly every character (and there are many in this one) has an interesting storyline. We especially like John Cho (Harold and Kumar, Star Trek) as an FBI agent who’s haunted by the flash he had of his own death, as well as Walger as the wife/surgeon struggling to distance herself from the man her flash indicated she’d leave her husband for. This is nitpicking, but I will say it struck me as curious that a U.S. production of a novel by a Canadian witer includes so many British actors (Fiennes, Walger, ER’s Alex Kingston, and more) playing Americans. Also, the kid actors in this show aren’t very good. Other than that, ABC labeled this show as “can’t miss” and they were right. If you haven’t seen the early episodes, catch up online.

Related Posts:

October 5, 2009

Pop Culture Fiend Is Watching All The New Fall Shows, So You Don’t Have To… You’re Welcome!

Well, not ALL the new shows. But way more than most of you out there who have jobs, hobbies, social engagements, significant others, or something better to do every night besides sitting in your tiny apartment in your dirty underwear watching TV, eating Fritos and licking the salt off your fingers…

Um... not that WE do that…

We were talking about this guy we know…

We all have girlfriends…

They're models and they live in Canada…

Okay, moving on... In the past, we were the very first ones to hip you to Friends, 24, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Big Bang Theory, Dollhouse, and other hit shows. (Of course, we also recommended Men Behaving Badly, What About Brian, Reunion, and Big Shots, but hey, you gotta take the good with bad, right?) Anyway, here’s our review of some new fall shows:

Accidentally On Purpose

What it is:

Knocked Up meets Three’s Company with a smattering of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
A little more to go on:
Thirtysomething career woman Jenna Elfman works at a TV station (hence the Mary Tyler Moore comparison), has a one-night stand with a twentysomething video game jockey and aspiring chef with three loser roommates. She gets pregnant and they all move in together.

Premise: C
Lead Actors: C (Elfman gets an A but co-star Jon Foster has as much charisma as a box of Wheat Thins.)
Supporting Cast: F
Writing: B
Overall: C-

The writing is pretty crisp and hip, but the pacing is off and the first episode felt ridiculously rushed. The supporting cast (including TV vet Grant Show and Ashley Jensen from Ugly Betty) adds absolutely nothing. Also, the producers didn’t think things through. Where’s this show gonna go after the baby comes? (Anybody remember what happened to Mad About You?) Elfman deserves way better.

Cougar Town

What it is:

Sex in the City meets Desperate Housewives with a smattering of I Love Lucy.
A little more to go on:
Real estate agent Courteney Cox is divorced and attempting to get back into the dating scene with the help of best friend Christa Miller (The Drew Carey Show, Scrubs) and sassy assistant Busy Phillips.

Premise: D
Lead Actors: B-
Supporting Cast: C+ (We’ve liked Busy Phillips since her days on Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks)
Writing: D
Overall D+

Cox’s character has a lot going on. She’s raising a son, dealing with her deadbeat ex-, feuding with a cradle-robbing neighbor, and fumbling through relationships with various boy-toys. Unfortunately, none of this is very funny. Cox and Miller (what the hell’d she do to her lips, by the way?) are both good comedic actresses but can’t sustain this frenetically paced vehicle.

Melrose Place

What it is:
One of the most popular night time soaps of the 90s revamped, with a few original cast members thrown in for good measure.
A little more to go on:
You’ve got a lot of the stereotypical characters here. A hot, bitchy manipulator (Katie Cassidy’s Ella), a sensitive artist (Michael Rady’s Jonah), the bad boy (Shaun Sipos’ David), dark, brooding, mysterious guy (Colin Egglesfield’s Auggie), and a seemingly sweet but possibly psycho chick (Ashlee Simpson’s Violet.) Lucky for us the show’s producers learned a lesson from 90210 last year and jump-started this show by bringing back 1st-gen Melrose characters Sydney, Jane and Michael.

Premise: B (with the underrstanding that simply updating a hit show from 15 years ago is incredibly lazy and unoriginal.)
Lead Actors: B
Supporting Cast: B
Writing: C+
Overall: C+

The “who killed Sydney” storyline holds your interest, as does the med student by day, hooker by night character played by Stephanie Jacobsen. The return of Heather Locklear as Amanda Woodward could really see this show take off. Still, all in all, not bad for what it is.