Monthly ArchiveMarch 2007



Movies 29 Mar 2007 08:23 am

Two duds

Casa Schillig has been on a roll with DVD selections lately, with the last four films screened on our state-of-the-art (in 1995), 32-inch television being enjoyable. (Scroll down for more information.)

But last weekend, our lucky streak ran out with two turkeys, “You, Me and Dupree” and “Pulse.”

“You, Me and Dupree” is ostensibly a comedy about a 30-something slacker who moves in with a childhood friend and his new wife. Typical hilarity (or what Hollywood considers typical hilarity) ensues, with lots of sight gags centering on inappropriate behavior and a clandestine stash of pornography. Then the movie tries to get meaningful, which is even a bigger mistake, and it all falls apart. If I were grading, I’d assign it a D.

“Pulse” commits the cardinal sin of scary movies: It’s not scary. I don’t know what it is, really — just a big mishmash of computer-generated ghouls and goblins sucking away the souls of unwary computer users. The whole thing is set in some bleak, nondescript urban environment that is supposed to make the viewer feel creeped out. Instead, it’s just depressing. I’ll give it a few points for attempting to go all epic in the last few minutes, but that’s really too little, too late. I rate it an F. “Pulse” is lifeless.

Comic books & Media 26 Mar 2007 03:55 pm

Military play

Below is another kid classic from the golden age of comic book advertising. Couldn’t tell you which comic book this one came from, because it seemed to everywhere when I was growing up.

What boy could resist (and I’m being gender-biased here, but let’s face it — this is definitely a guy thing, yes?) the 100 pc. toy soldier set that came in its own footlocker?

 

 Notice the small-print “pasteboard” above the word footlocker, which let the more discriminating buyer know that said locker would be a big letdown upon arrival.

And the little military people were no better or worse than the standard-issue green Army men that you could buy in a plastic bag at Murphy’s Mart or Woolworth’s. But there was something about getting them in the mail, as if the postal service conferred upon them a uniqueness denied to their soldierly brethern in the retail ranks.

If you’ve seen the opening episode of the TNT mini-series “Nightmares and Dreamscapes,” you’ll never look at miniature military figures the same again. Leave it to Stephen King to make this 100-piece set a bit sinister.  

Books 25 Mar 2007 09:07 am

Perfectly purple prose

Forever Odd

“Forever Odd” is the second entry in bestselling author Dean Koontz’s series about 21-year-old Odd Thomas, who can see and communicate with the dead.

If that sounds a lot like the premise behind “The Sixth Sense,” it is, but that’s where the similarity ends. Odd, who narrates each novel, exhibits a charmingly droll sense of humor and a working stiff’s attitude toward his gift. His day job is a fry cook at a small diner, although he’s on a leave of absence following events in the first novel.

“Forever Odd” offers a truly evil villain who may or may not be the human incarnation of the death goddess Kali, two suitably threatening henchmen, a crawl through underground water pipes that would make Victor Hugo proud, and a wonderfully twisted extended set piece in the burned-out husk of a casino.

The book isn’t nearly as good as “Odd Thomas,” the first novel in the series, but it’s still more than good enough for what it is: A modern day recreation of a pulp adventure.

Pulps, for those who have never experienced them, were magazines that had their hayday in the 1920s and 1930s. They were basically men’s adventure magazines filled with colorful heroes like The Shadow and Doc Savage and a colorful assortment of suitably nefarious bad guys — gangsters, sorcerors, and sinister Asians bent on world domination.

Because they were published monthly and writers earned a dreadful half-cent or penny per word, pulps were not (usually) repositories of the most carefully thought-out prose, but were instead filled with colorful adjectives and breathless sentences. Kind of like the ones in this review, come to think of it.

“Forever Odd” reminds me of the pulps both in its choice of plot and its breakneck pace. Koontz is a far better writer, however, and readers benefit from Odd’s skewed observations about life, even as he’s dangling from one precipice or another.

I liked “Forever Odd.” Next up, the latest entry in the series, “Brother Odd.”

Movies 22 Mar 2007 04:15 pm

Laughter is the best medicine

I watched two very funny movies last weekend, and I’m thinking back on them today because I have a slight cold. Maybe I hope after-the-fact laughter is just as effective a medication.  

Anyway, the two movies were “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Employee of the Month.” While the first was infinitely better in every regard, I laughed harder at the second. Sue me.

“Little Miss Sunshine” tells the story of a super-dysfunctional family (dad is an out-of-work motivational speaker, grandpa snorts cocaine) escorting its youngest member cross country to a beauty pageant. It’s a road picture, yes, but not in the traditional sense. Nothing about “Little Miss Sunshine” is traditional. Standing out in a cast of standouts is Steve Carell as the world’s foremost Proust scholar, who also happens to be suicidal.

By comparison, “Employee of the Month” is a paint-by-numbers comedy that does for retail what “Office Space” (also not Shakespeare but damn enjoyable anyway) did for cubicle dwellers. Dane Cook is a “box boy” at a warehouse store that looks a lot like Sam’s Club; Jessica Simpson is the new employee transferred to the store after allegedly sleeping with the employee of the month at her previous store. That’s all Cook’s character needs to know to turn around his work habits.

The movie’s focus on extrinsic motivation (little gold stars in the employee lounge, a contest to win a car) echoes serious research in the field done by people like Edward Deci, whose book “Why We Do What We Do” kept running through my mind as the so-called motivational contests in the film turn most of the employees into disenfranchised drones.

I’m sure any deep thoughts “Employee of the Month” inspires were wholly unintentional. That doesn’t keep me from recommending it as a harmless way to kill an hour and a half.

“Little Miss Sunshine” is well worth seeing, too.

If you’ve seen any movie that will cure the sniffles, please post it here. Gotta go now — my nose is running.

Commentary 20 Mar 2007 02:58 pm

Double take

As George Bush’s personal grudge match with Iraq enters its fifth year this week, I find it appropriate to reprint the lyrics to “Deja Vu (All Over Again),” the 2004 song from the album of the same name by John Fogerty.

Fogerty is a keen observer of political chicanery, and if his song seemed appropriate two years ago, it’s downright prescient today.

Nearly everything Fogerty has written or recorded over his decades-long career as the guiding creative force behind Creedence Clearwater Revival or as a solo artist is worth listening to. This song is especially so.

Deja Vu (All Over Again)

 Did you hear ‘em talkin’ ’bout it on the radio
Did you try to read the writing on the wall
Did that voice inside you say I’ve heard it all before
It’s like Deja Vu all over again
Day by day I hear the voices rising
Started with a whisper like it did before
Day by day we count the dead and dying
Ship the bodies home while the networks all keep score

Did you hear ‘em talkin’ ’bout it on the radio
Could your eyes believe the writing on the wall
Did that voice inside you say I’ve heard it all before
It’s like Deja Vu all over again

One by one I see the old ghosts rising
Stumblin’ ‘cross Big Muddy
Where the light gets dim
Day after day another Momma’s crying
She’s lost her precious child
To a war that has no end

Did you hear ‘em talkin’ ’bout it on the radio
Did you stop to read the writing at The Wall
Did that voice inside you say
I’ve seen this all before
It’s like Deja Vu all over again

Media 19 Mar 2007 03:29 pm

True Grit

A few posts back, I wondered if Grit, the longtime rural newspaper filled with articles, comics and other fun features that I remembered from my youth, was still being published.

 Turns out it is, but not as a newspaper. Now owned by Ogden Publications in West Virginia, Grit is a bimonthly glossy magazine that, in the words of its Web site at grit.com, “will speak to a growing audience of Americans exploring new ways of living in the country as a lifestyle choice.”

Glossy magazine? Bimonthly? This ain’t you’re father’s Grit, to be sure, although a quick scan of article titles (”How Much Mulch? and “Local Color at the Feed & Seed among them) shows the magazine is true to its agrarian roots.

Comic books & Media 17 Mar 2007 05:51 am

Captain, my Captain

Here is this week’s print column, originally published on Thursday, March 15. Beware the Ides of March and all that. The topic is comic book superhero Captain America and what it takes to keep a good guy down.

Death, be not permanent

RIP FN, Captain America.

 

On a slow news day last week, the mainstream media seized on virtually the only comics-related story it reports ” the death of an iconic character.

 

This time, it is Captain America.

 

In issue 25 of the character’s latest series, the Captain is felled by a sniper’s bullet and bleeds out on the steps of a federal courthouse. His death is the climax of a long-term “Civil War” story that ran through many Marvel Comics in the last few months, forcing heroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four to choose sides over a superhuman registration act.

 

I haven’t been following Captain America or Civil War too closely, but current Cap writer Ed Brubaker offers a good summary in the current issue, which is selling briskly in bookstores and specialty shops nationwide. The story also features a last-page twist guaranteed to both confuse the casual reader and ensure the hardcore fan comes back for issue 26.

 

I won’t spoil it here; buy a copy if you’re curious.

 

What I will do is wax nostalgic about other characters who, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have died only to “get better.”

 

Honestly, I cannot think of a single comic book hero who has stayed dead. Some die and come back the following month, before grass has grown up around their graves. Others remain interred for decades, seemingly beyond resuscitation, only to pop out of death’s maw like charred bread sprung from a jammed-up toaster. One way or another, heroes’ final bows are followed by another encore.

 

Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s sidekick during World War II, is one hero who seemed to possess a one-way ticket down the River Styx. When Cap returned in the 1960s after spending decades frozen in a block of ice (suspended animation, naturally), writer Stan Lee revealed Bucky had died strapped to a bomb-carrying drone plane, a victim of a scheme by that nefarious Nazi, Baron Zemo.

 

Decade after decade, other heroes would bite the bullet and come back later to spit it out, but Bucky stayed dead, a constant source of grief for poor Captain America. Then in 2005, Brubaker brought Bucky back as a covert post-Cold War operative named the Winter Soldier and hinted he had been responsible for the deaths of many high-ranking officials over the years. Captain America’s angst tripled.

 

Another character whose ticket appeared punched for good was Captain Marvel. Don’t confuse him with the red-suited guy with the lightning-bolt insignia on his chest, who shouted “Shazam!” to transform between the Big Red Cheese (as his foes called him) and teenager Billy Batson.

 

Instead, the “dead” Captain Marvel was an alien soldier named Mar-Vell, who wore cosmic wristbands to channel his great powers. In a story in the early 80s, this Captain Marvel died of cancer, maybe the first hero to succumb to such a realistic illness. His death was both original and genuinely touching, and as a result, his swan song stuck. Other characters took the name (companies have trademarks to maintain, after all), but Mar-Vell stayed buried on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

 

Yet earlier this year, Mar-Vell came back, courtesy of time travel, plucked out of the time stream after he was exposed to the gas that gave him cancer, but before he started to show symptoms. Will he stay in the present and die (ital.) again (end ital.), find a cure for his condition, or return to the past and face his fate? An interesting conundrum, for sure.

 

Probably the most high profile character death was Superman, who died in 1993 for the umpteenth time. This time, his demise came at the hands of an alien bully named Doomsday. When word of the passing hit the national news, a run on specialty shops sent DC Comics back to the printer several times for alternate editions, including one that came interred in a black plastic bag, the ultimate death-slab collectible.

 

Superman stayed dead for a couple of months while other heroes in the DC pantheon tried to fill the void. Not surprisingly, his return was heralded as another major event and sold lots of copies, too.

 

So I can’t work up too many tears for Captain America. Even if the original Cap is truly gone, somebody else will assume the mantle. More likely, however, a few months down the line, a writer will wave a magic wand or expose a clone, and the original Captain Marvel will again don his red-white-and-blue costume and shield, keeping the fictional world safe for democracy.

 

So Rest In Peace For Now, Captain America. We all know you will be back.

Media 15 Mar 2007 06:26 am

Idol chatter

I admit to being an “American Idol” watcher.

I say “watcher” because I’m not a fanatic about the show as so many people are. The first season, I didn’t watch at all. The second, I watched with one eye, peering over the top of a book or magazine while contestants performed and the judges vetted. Since then, I’ve put the reading material down and focused on the show when it’s on. And with auditions, three nights of performances and voting and recaps, it’s on a lot.

The show tries to maintain its “everything to everybody” demographics with a broad and diverse cast of singers, and I believe it is subtly (and not so subtly) rigged to keep it this way. Voting remains open “for at least two hours,” or (and this is my interpretation) until the people who need to win, do.

So I’m not surprised that an utterly horrible performer like young Sanjaya Malakar remained last night, even though the person eliminated, Brandon Rogers, was almost as bad. According to Internet reports, Malakar has gained the endorsement of Web site “votefortheworst.com,” which tries to skew results by keeping the worst singers in the competition longer. How successful the organizers are — or why they would go to such lengths — I don’t know.

My vote for 2007 American Idol? Either Lakisha Jones or Melinda Doolittle would be great. I’m betting on Doolittle.

Comic books & Media 14 Mar 2007 03:21 pm

Grit no more?

Free Image Hosting at ImageShack.us

 My last attempt to enlighten you with advertising Americana of days past being so successful (the post about Sea Monkeys garnered no comment), I decided to try again with the above ad for Grit.

 It was taken from a vintage issue of Gold Key’s “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” but it ran in lots of other comic books, as well. Click on the image to see a larger, readable version, complete with a quaint ad for Social Security card protectors.

As a kid, I used to read issues of the weekly Grit at my aunt’s house. No smiling little entrepreneur delivered it; I believe it was mailed. Even then, Grit must have had trouble finding the kind of kid it advertised for in so many millions of comic books.

Nevertheless, it was a fun newspaper — filled with serialized stories, puzzles, and comic strips I didn’t see anywhere else. I assume there were articles  as well, but I can’t tell you what a single one was about. At age 10 I was far more interested in the other stuff.

I always thought it would be fun to sell Grit, but I ended up with an Alliance Review route, instead. Not that delivering the hometown paper wasn’t a blast (it was), but it wasn’t Grit, and it once led to a near-death experience involving West State Street, a flopped bike and a tangled shoelace.

But that, as they say, is another story…

Anybody know if Grit is still published?

Commentary 12 Mar 2007 06:28 pm

Time switch

Usually, I post an excerpt from my weekly print column here on the blog.

 This week, I did not, since the content was time sensitive, no pun intended. I wrote about the early switch to daylight-saving time, and how a lot of alarmists were concerned it would throw our computerized world into chaos.

Well, it didn’t. Not even a single little glitch.

 You can chalk that up to great planning by the nation’s software-patch designers or to the fact that the “danger” was overhyped to begin with. Your choice.

Me, I’m serene in the knowledge that, either way, the world kept on spinning.

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