Sunday, July 6, 2014

Film review: Earth to Echo

If you're old enough to be a parent, then you're old enough to have seen "E.T." and/or "Stand By Me," and if you've seen those movies, you're going to be bored silly by "Earth to Echo," which borrows liberally from both classics.

(Watching "E.T." back in '82, I couldn't get over how much it borrowed from "Escape to Witch Mountain.")

It has the added quality of borrowing from  the 'found footage' genre, pretty much guaranteeing the easily queazy a case of motion sickness.

It's a well-made film, your kids will love it. There's nothing objectionable. But, I had to sit through it with my eyes closed to keep from throwing up.

On a positive note, Teo Halm will be a big movie star someday probably soon.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Mystery of the One-Season Detective

I've been binge watching "Ellery Queen" on Hulu Plus. This was an NBC mystery from 1975-76. It was a whodunnit created by/produced by Richard Levinson, William Link and Peter Fischer. These three would later create "Murder, She Wrote," another whodunnit for CBS. The difference is, one of these shows ran one season, the other … what … 12 seasons?

The only reason I can see is "Murder, She Wrote," got the sweet time slot right after "60 Minutes," which was always a top 5 show in the 70s and 80s. (and any other network would have given the show the boot after three seasons so it could build another hit). "Ellery Queen" on the other hand was on NBC in the mid-70s, a time when no one watched NBC. The network went an entire decade without a hit show.

I liked the '40s setting, they put a lot of work on the cars, sets and props. But why the late 40s? All the good movie mysteries were from the 30s and early 40s. And though the women were game in having 40s hairstyles, the men for the most part kept their shaggy 70s hair. All the period shows in the 70s did this (except for the first season of "Happy Days.") My only explanation is all the guest stars were working actors, and couldn't very well get a 40s hair cut if they were due on the "Kojak" set first thing Monday morning.

And maybe Jim Hutton and David Wayne were too old for their roles. Hutton was a 42 year old guy living with his dad. And Wayne was in his 60s, perhaps too close to retirement to be a chief inspector. And sometimes Queen's absent-mindedness seemed rude. For a drinking game, take a shot every time he says, "Huh?"

Otherwise it was probably better than "Murder, She Wrote." Ellery tagging along with his police inspector dad was certainly more believable than Jessica Fletcher stumbling into murder after murder. EQ also had a better sense of humor; any joke on "Murder She Wrote" was definitely forced, or saved til the last freeze frame. EQ's humor was a little more organic, either through dialogue or the characters.

Saturday, June 7, 2014


Comic legend Bill Watterson made a cameo last week in "Pearls Before Swine." He didn't have to, but he did. Thank you, Mr. Watterson.

I thought it was his style, but didn't imagine he'd come back.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Really overdue film review: Skyfall

I get the feeling everyone looked at their watch and said, "Ohh, time to make a James Bond movie." And that's all the thought they put into the script. By its nature, the James Bond series is going to have some recycling, but "Casino Royale" managed to recycle things so well, it all seemed new. "Skyfall" seemed like minimum effort script-wise.

And I'm not talking about the standards: he must be in a tuxedo in a casino, he must have a doomed lover, he must have a physically deformed villain. I'm talking about plot elements stolen without any hesitation.

Judi Dench in jeopardy just like "World is Not Enough"
James Bond resurrected like "You Only Live Twice"
James Bond being told he's too old and must undergo training, just like "Never Say Never Again"
The rogue MI6 agent from "Goldeneye"
The palm-reading gun, just like from "License to Kill."
Bond breaks into M's flat, just like in "Casino Royale," and that was only two films ago.

Did this film have anything original?

But then there's the scenes overdone from other movies:

The criminal mastermind being questioned in his super secure standalone cell from which he'll escape,… from "Silence of the Lambs," "X-Men 2," "Avengers," and last night's episode of "The Blacklist."

The last act was like "Die Hard," except without the henchmen with individual personalities

Head scratchers:

How did Javier Bardem hack into MI6's computers? He worked there ten years ago and they still have the same computers with the same passwords?
How did he escape from the super inescapable cell? And how did he kill all the guards?
They introduce the new Q and all he has to offer is a gun and a radio? Why bother?

If the Daniel Craig films represent a reboot, where did he get the Aston Martin with built-in machine guns? Granted, I did not see all of "Quantum of Solace," if it wasn't introduced there, there's no reason he should have Sean Connery's car except to get big applause from the audience.

The Moneypenny introduction was cute albeit unnecessary. Samantha Bond was still probably the best Moneypenny.

Great action scenes, great cinematography, great locales, but, nothing original.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The new book has gone live. Check it out here.

Here's the first chapter:

A Girl’s Guide to Keeping Her Pants On 
(For the Most Part)

By Stephen Robb

Summer 1980 … or … last week.

My name is Carol and here’s the story far: I’m 17, and I live at home with my family. My dad is mostly cool, but mostly strict. He was a freaking Marine for goshake. He’s kept the haircut. I just want to say, ‘Dad, it’s been 15 years since you’ve been in the Marines, let your hair grow out a little.’ And speaking of haircuts, he’s such an old fashioned Italian I’m not allowed to get my hair cut, I have to tell him I’m getting my hair styled. This is crazy. And speaking of Italian, though we speak mostly English around the house, the main rule is when we have dinner we speak Italian.
(He didn’t want me to take Italian in school because he said it was cheating since I already speak it. My argument was, sure I can speak it, but I can’t write or read it. It was one of the few arguments with my father I won.)
He also scares away potential boyfriends. But more on that later.
Mom is sweet, she’s in the kitchen a lot, and draws me in, teaching me what to do. She said the important thing to do is to make it look hard, otherwise people won’t appreciate it. (Put some rice in a pot, do this first because it takes forever for water to boil, put some carrots in a pan with some butter and some wine. Pound some chicken breasts, grate parmesan over it (real parmesan, not the stuff you sprinkle on), grate some lemon rind over it, cover with prosciutto, fry in a pan for about 7 minutes each side. Sprinkle with red wine vinegar. Quick, easy, people will think you spent hours in the kitchen.)
Then there’s my sister, Beth, 14, pain in the ass. Everyone asks if we’re twins. People! We are not twins! First of all, there’s a two-and-a-half year age difference. Second of all, she looks nothing like me. She’s petite with long brown hair, dark complexion and dark brown eyes. I’m petite with long brown hair, dark complexion, brown eyes and slightly larger boobs. 
And she is nothing like me: I’m enjoying life, I have friends, I cheerlead. She has no friends, spends all her time reading books, and she actually studies.
We’re not even in the same school. She’s going into her sophomore year at St. Millicent’s; I’m going in my senior year at Harding. And people ask why does she go to Catholic school and I go to public school. You’d have thought by now everyone would have heard about the nun-slapping incident.
 More on that later, too.
My best friend is Starflake. A little crazy, a lot funny. She’s the one who cheers me up, and gets me into, and/or out of trouble. Nothing brings her down. It could have something to do with all the pot, I’m not sure.
And my boyfriend. Joe Dolens. Big handsome, football-type. We’re just supposed to be together, it’s like they say in The Ten Commandments, “So it is written, so it shall be.”
Of course he’s trying to get in my pants in the worst way. I’m holding him at bay, or at least trying to. 
I’m afraid if I do it, my dad will just know.
And this leads me to the summer before my senior year. 

My week at Ocean City: Part vacation, part punishment from God.
I was getting too old for this stuff. A time existed when I looked forward to packing dad’s Volaré with bathing suits and floats and towels and Coppertone, and going with my mom and dad and even sister for a week at Ocean City. We did it every year. When relatives are over, home movies of me and Beth clowning in front of the camera, modeling our bathing suits and running in and out of the ocean are dragged out. Relatives are forced to watch Dad picking us up and tossing us in the ocean with his arms that are like steel cables. Mom shows off her massive sunglasses.
The home movies leave out the constant smell of Coppertone. I’m not sure how much it helped though. Every vacation we started out light brown and by the end of the week all four of us degos got deep brown.
Now, it wasn’t like that anymore. I had friends, teenage friends who understood me and were equally annoyed by their parents. Dad, I love you but I’m tired of your stories about boot camp, and Parris Island, and Germany. If you want me to be impressed by Germany, take me there! Better yet, send me there! And the rules: home by midnight on weekends, 11 on weeknights. What do you think I’m doing? OK, I know what you think I’m doing. But I’m not doing it. 
Mom, once again, I love you bunches, nah, I’ll leave it there, I do love her bunches, and sometimes we act like girlfriends and go to lunch, but she’s not like a real girlfriend. I can’t talk to her about drinking, nor can we play ‘who would you marry, who would you date,’ things like that. You can’t say to your mom, “Yeah, I do like Mike Wilson’s butt, but I wouldn’t want to marry him for it.”
And so I was at the shore with Mom, Dad and Beth, and we were at the house we rent every year, about two blocks from the beach. And everything around the house is nautical themed, the stuff hanging on the wall, the knick knacks on the shelf, the stuff in the bathroom, it all involves seagulls, boats, anchors, dunes, sea shells. Kind of neat when I was 10, kind of kitschy at 17.
We unpacked the car, and Mom was like, ‘let’s go to the beach,’ and we indulged her. We changed, got in our bathing suits, each of us grabbed a beach chair, and a towel and Dad had this wagon that carried accessories and an immense umbrella. We trekked the two blocks to the beach and set up camp. 
Dad sat in his chair and listened to the Phillies on his transistor, Mom, Beth and I went into the water. It was cold and salty and I could feel my hair frizzing.
I looked out over the ocean; perhaps a wave could take me away to France or something, that would be nice.
Then, something better came along to whisk me away.
Starflake. Just the name makes me smile. Chestnut hair, big brown eyes, this enormous smile that glittered, but that was the braces. And she was my best friend, and like a variation of the birth of Venus, the ocean was bringing her to me.
I ran as best I could over the waves and gave her a hug. “I thought you were in Puerto Rico.”
“How can the beaches of Old San Juan possibly compare with the beaches of New Jersey? I had to come back.” Then she grabbed my arm, “I’m here to rescue you!” She walked over to my mom, “Hi Mrs. Martino, how are you? I tried your baked zucchini, my parents went crazy for it. My mom says to break into your house and steal your cookbook.”
Mom was as surprised to see her as I was; they exchanged small talk. Her family was in Margate, and she thought she’d come over to Ocean City to see if we were there.
Beth waded out to see who we were talking to. “Beth, how are you, I found a cute lifeguard for you.” Beth blushed.
She was amazing, she was everyone’s friend and could talk anyone into doing anything.
“Hey, Mrs. Martino, why don’t I take this brat off your hands and take her back to Margate with me?” Mom seemed fine with it, except, “Ask you father.”
Starflake held my hand. “No sweat,” she whispered to me.
“We ran up the beach and kneeled at dad’s feet. Yeah I know it sounds funny, but he was sitting in one of those stumpy-legged beach chairs and it was the only way we could make eye contact with him. Starflake started, softening him up, “Mr. Martino, I just talked to the lifeguards, they want me to tell you to tone down the sexy, you’re distracting the women swimmers and they’re drowning.”
Dad never knew how to respond to Starflake. On one hand I should be horrified my best friend is flirting with my dad. On the other hand it often got me what I wanted.
“Hey Daddy, can I go spend the day with Starflake’s family in Margate?”
Dad was torn. To him family vacation meant just that: family vacation. Yet, his little girl was no longer a little girl.
He relented. “Be home by 11.”
We first stopped by my family’s shore house so I could grab a change of clothes. Then we went to Starflake’s family’s house long enough to take showers and grab a sandwich. Then Starflake drove us to Wildwood. Our first stop was a distributor where she picked up a case of Genesee. She showed me her fake ID. Glad to meet you Constance Esperanza. (Starflake wasn’t her real name either, but it certainly wasn’t Constance Esperanza.) The Genesee served as our admission ticket to a house some of her girlfriends were renting for the summer. Mostly seniors and recent grads. I knew some of them; it was some cheerleaders and hangers on (us). We could now stay, hang out, and if need be, sleep on the floor that night.
So we hung with the girls and got a little buzz going. We hit the Ocean Break for a sandwich and some more beer. The pub was loud and smoky and rife with teenagers. We were sitting in a booth when I felt a familiar hand on my shoulder. I turned my head and was kissed by Joe Dolens. “Hey Honeybear!” he said.
I smiled and slid over in the booth so he could sit down. Joe was burnt from the sun, his black hair was cut short, and the boy had muscles. And I wasn’t expecting him at all. “What are you doing here... how did you find me?”
“I got fired,” he said without much concern (This happened a lot). “I thought I’d come down for the week. I stopped by the girls’ house and they said you’d be here.”
He turned to my partner in crime. “Hey Starflake, what’s going on?”
“I’m about eight seconds from losing my girlfriend.”
I felt myself blushing. This is what made her such a good friend, she could read my mind. 
“You don’t mind do you?”
“This is what I get for springing you.” She stood up and drained her beer mug. “That’s all right, I’ll find me a fudge beater with thick sinewy arms.” And off she went.
Joe squished in closer, our hips were up against each other. His right arm was around my shoulders, his left hand was stealing my onion rings. “This is a good sign. Aren’t you here with your parents?”
“They’re in Ocean City, Starflake kidnapped me.”
“Good deal.” He started nuzzling my face. “I’m happy to see you”
“But I have to be back at 11,” I said. 
“I would expect nothing less.” 
“Let’s hit the boardwalk.”
So we hit the boardwalk, went on some rides, went on the Scrambler, and I sat on the wrong side which means as we spun around, Joe was pressed more and more into me. I didn’t mind though, I kind of liked it. We had crabs, we had more beer, and he made me laugh and made me feel important, and by 10:45 we were parked about a block from my parents’ rental and we were clinging to each other, kissing each other harder and harder. And he had his hands on my boobs and I might have been rubbing his crotch through his pants, and the windows got steamed up, and I felt like I was going to explode.
“Tomorrow,” I said suddenly.
“Tomorrow, go to the drug store, do what you have to do, find a place, and … tomorrow.”
“OK,” he said, breathlessly. I got out of the car and gave him one last kiss. “I’ll see you at 6 at the girls’ house.”
I popped a Tic-tac in my mouth, opened the front door and got home exactly at 11. Dad was waiting up. I kissed him goodnight and went to bed. Lying in bed, my engine was slowly revving down. 
What was I doing?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Organic vs. nonorganic TV love interests

"Big Bang Theory" has this in common with "MASH:" Neither were hits until they went into syndication (or in "Big Bang's" case syndication and heavy rotation on TBS.). Once audiences got hooked on these really great shows, they turned to the network for original episodes.

(Getting off the topic of my post for a second: The ironic thing is "Big Bang" deserves the attention, it's a much funnier show now than it was in its first season. "MASH" on the other hand got worse and worse, and the characters more shrill and forced with each progressive season. As the ratings went up, it got more preachy and less funny).

Back on topic: When a show runs a long time though it's necessary to bring in a love interest for the main or main characters. There's two ways to go about this, organic and nonorganic. "Big Bang" did it organically. Several girlfriends have come and gone, and neither Mayiam Bialyk nor Melissa Rauch were supposed to become regulars, yet, they were so good, and their characters were so funny, they just had to become full-timers. It was organic.

Another good example of this is Kelsey Grammer in "Cheers." Once again, he was never supposed to be a regular. Yet his character served as such a great elite snobby counterweight to the blue collar regulars, they had to keep him. That and he nails every line.

(Another leap off topic: watch his first season of "Cheers" and the first season of "Frasier" and you'll see that while Grammar toned down the fussbudget intellectualism, David Hyde Pierce picked it up. Pierce is playing Frasier from his first season on "Cheers.")

So what's an example of nonorganic?

Fonzie's girlfriend Pinky Tuscadero.

The show had been on for years, Fonzie was the center of a cultural phenomenon; the producers, having run out of story ideas long ago, decided Fonzie needed a girlfriend.

The press was alerted.

They would hold nationwide auditions. The character would be cool and tough enough to go head to head with the Fonz. ABC kept this story alive in the newspapers the summer before the season premier.
Roz Kelly would be the lucky (not really) actress. Publicity pictures were released.

And…it sucked.

No one liked her, no one liked her character, it seemed forced, and after a few episodes she was promptly forgotten.

This is of course hindsight talking, but they should done what "Big Bang" would later do and have given him a different girlfriend every six episodes and hire full-time the one that clicked with the cast and America.

Can you have a character who's too organic?

Yes. Michael J. Fox's Alex on "Family Ties" was the Fonzie of the '80s. Like Henry Winkler, he was never supposed to be the star of his show, but by shear talent and charisma they both became the breakout stars. After several years though, the producers knew he needed a girlfriend too. And they got Tracy Pollan. The character didn't necessarily become a hit with the viewers, but Michael J. Fox liked the actress enough to marry her, she quit the show, and was replaced with Courtney Cox.

That's an example of too organic.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book review: Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin

Who better to write a biography of Johnny Carson than Carson's own fixer. For nearly 20 years Bushkin was the guy Johnny called in the middle of the night to help him hide the bodies. Not literally, but when he was in a jam … bad contract, bad marriage, bad obligation (professional or personal) Bushkin was the guy who did the dirty work.

We get some glimpse of one of the most private men of the 20th century; he was a mean drunk, a serial womanizer, and had so much animosity to his own mom that he skipped her funeral; but little else really. There's little about the day-to-day business of the Tonight Show (Bushkin prided him self on keeping his mouth shut when at tapings), and more on the contract negotiations, playing chicken with NBC, and trips to Europe, which he enjoyed because he could walk down the street and be unbothered by fans.

If you ever envied the job of being Johnny Carson, this book might set you straight. He had millions of dollars but an equal number of people in his strata with their hand out. He had wives and mistresses, but in the end, he died alone. He ultimately cut off all real and for-pay friends.

There's a funny passage about how he had no respect at all for Fred Silverman and his programming skills (fair enough, though he made genius decisions at CBS and ABC, his programs at  NBC were at best head-scratching ("Pink Lady & Jeff"). Then when Carson got a big contract to produce shows for NBC, he could do no better.

In the end, Bushkin describes their professional and personal break-up in the sketchiest of terms. One leaves with the feeling there was something much bigger going on than the explanation he gave.

Despite the gaps, it's still a must-read for fans.