Monthly ArchiveMarch 2008



Movies 30 Mar 2008 05:25 pm

Play “Mist”-y for me

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Frank Darabont has directed two of the most successful adaptations of Stephen King’s work — The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile — but he’s never tackled one of the author’s more gruesome entries. Until now.

The Mist is one of King’s best novellas, the story of a group of people who find themselves trapped together inside a grocery store while a mysterious fog covers the countryside. Inside this fog are some otherworldly creatures, and they’re not dropping in for a friendly visit.

Darabont gets great performances from his ensemble cast, led by Thomas Jane as a movie-poster artist who becomes the leader of the disparate little band of refugees, and Marcia Gay Harden as a Bible-thumping fundamentalist who goes over the edge when the creepy-crawlies attack. In one of the making-of features included on the second DVD (released last week), Darabont says that the film is about the fragility of human civilization under pressure. And humanity doesn’t acquit itself too well in this movie, as the customers go in short order from fighting about who will stack dog-food bags in front of the store’s windows to offering up human sacrifices to appease the Mist.

Harden’s character is at the center of this devolution. In the interest of balance, it would probably have been beneficial to include a religious character who wasn’t a babbling psychotic. One wonders how the other characters, even under extreme duress, manage to fall so quickly and completely under her spell. But maybe that’s the sad legacy of religious zealotry.

Probably the most shocking part of the movie is the end, which offers a one-two sucker punch quite different from King’s conclusion to the story. This one hurts, but in a good way: It’s unforgettable. Whether it will satisfy or make you angry depends a lot on your perspective about the movie’s theme: Will humanity fold at the slightest provocation and sink to its basest level?

Like Pan’s Labyrinth, this movie combines CGI, puppetry and make-up effects to sell the goods. The extras indicate it was filmed extremely fast on a small budget; none of this comes through on the screen. The Mist is a very good movie — the perfect weekend horror flick that also manages to make the viewer think.

One of the bonus features is a “director’s preferred version” — the complete movie in black and white. Darabont introduces it by saying it’s a tribute to all the great horror flicks of the 1960s that were also monochromatic. I haven’t watched it that way yet (I was lucky to get my wife to watch it in color, let alone black and white), but I will. The Mist is a movie worth seeing at least twice.

I also liked the cameo for The Dark Tower, King’s longest work, which pops up as the movie poster Thomas Jane’s character is painting in the opening scene. Is this a sneaky way of saying that fans can expect a film version of that story somewhere down the line? If so, Jane would be a good choice for Roland Deschain, the gunslinger whose quest for the Dark Tower occupies seven volumes.

Books 29 Mar 2008 09:34 am

Fear for thought

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A friend highly recommended Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. He had been assigned to read it as part of a self-defense class and found it illuminating. That kind of recommendation is hard to pass up.

De Becker’s book is worthwhile, especially for women. I’m not being sexist by saying that. The author points out that most violence in America is performed by men and that most victims are women. Hence, his examples are (almost) exclusively of violence toward women perpetrated by men, usually men with whom they have some passing acquaintance.

That’s not to say the book isn’t worthwhile for men. If you have a wife, girlfriend, daughters, nieces and female friends, the book has great value. Even if you don’t, the chapters on “Survival Signals,” “Imperfect Strangers,” “Persistence, Persistence,” “Occupational Hazards,” and “Fear of Children” are right on the money.

Some of the situations de Becker deals with are how to properly hire and fire employees to minimize the threat of violence in the workplace, whether parents are in danger from children (and how to avoid having it happen), and common tricks used by stalkers and intimidators that cause us to lower our instinctive intuition and allow them access to our lives.

The final chapter, “The Gift of Fear,” talks about how anxiety is different than fear, how it blunts the natural fear instinct which is vital for survival in truly life-threatening situations, and how to live free from worry. It’s an ambitious agenda, and de Becker isn’t entirely successful, but he certainly gives the reader his money’s worth in things to consider carefully.

My daughter doesn’t love to read, but I’m going to urge her to give this book a whirl. She is approaching college age, a time when she will be much less dependent on her parents, so de Becker’s advice for honing the intuition and staying alert (but not neurotically so) is important. I want her to be able to recognize common trust-building techniques used by potential stalkers, how to say no forcefully without feeling guilty about it, how women in abusive relationships are victims the first time they are abused but choose to be victims the second time it happens (a controversial opinion, but de Becker makes his case), and why she should never discount that little voice inside her that says, “This is a bad idea/situation/person.”

Commentary & Family life 28 Mar 2008 11:00 am

He wants a doctor at his bedside

Here is my print column from March 27, 2008, originally published in The Alliance Review.

 So why don’t doctors still make house calls?

Once upon a time, they came to the door, right up to your bedside, and offered care. If you don’t believe me, ask somebody of a certain age or watch old movies. In films, the only people who show up at the door more than doctors are Jehovah’s Witnesses or tramps looking for handouts.

I had the flu last week, or I think I did. I don’t really know because my doctor couldn’t see me.

I don’t blame him. He was busy. Many of his patients had the flu, not just me. And those patients who didn’t probably do now. They got it from the waiting room, where sick people practically pitch tents waiting to get in, running fevers and sneezing and coughing on the health magazines placed there for your reading pleasure.

My wife called my doctor and told him my symptoms. Actually, she told the doctor’s nurse. Somebody from the office phoned a prescription into my pharmacy, or you’d be reading Charley Reese in this spot right now. If you’d prefer Charley Reese, hey, maybe next time somebody won’t phone and it’ll be your lucky day.

Sorry if that sounds callous. I’m in a callous mood. I’m still under the weather as I write this, but under the weather beats under the ground, as my granddad used to say. (To be honest, I don’t know if he ever said that. If he didn’t, he should have. It sounds wise in a gallows humor, grandfatherly way.)

Before last week, I hadn’t used a sick day since Dec. 26, 1999, according to my wife. She says I called off that day after spending part of Christmas Eve in the emergency room with a fever. I don’t remember calling off, but hey, I was feverish.

I do recall missing two days in 1992 when I had bronchitis, triggered by working in an office where everybody except me was a chain smoker.

Other than that, I’ve had a good run of health. I don’t know why. It’s like those interviews I sometimes read with 100-year-old people who have no explanation for their longevity. Some of them are smokers, or drinkers, or gambling addicts, or Bible thumpers, and not one of them can say why they’re centenarians.

I knew a kid once who had never missed a day of school. Not one. No chicken pox in kindergarten, no headache in the fourth grade, no busted arm in middle school, no senior skip day. Thirteen years of straight education. The school was going to give him a special award. I told him he should be absent the day they did. He didn’t think that was too funny.

But I’m the same way. I go to work sick sometimes because as long as it’s not catching, I can convalesce there as well as at home. Besides, I’m dumb in a pack mule sort of way. I need to keep laboring up the side of the mountain a little each day, or I forget which direction I’m heading.

That’s why this flu thing sucks like an Oreck. When I’m not feverish, I feel fine. But when my temperature creeps up, look out — it’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” all over again. I can’t do anything except sit around like Larry Talbot waiting for the full-moon fever to turn me into the Wolf Man, hoping the wonder drugs the doc prescribed will kick in and kick the fever out.

Now where was I? Oh, yeah, doctors and house calls.

I want my doctor to see me at home. I want him to pull up in his Bentley or his Porsche, knock on the door, thread his way past Floyd the 15-pound guard cat and all the dust bunnies hopping around under the sofa, bend over my sick bed, look into my rheumy eyes and say …

“Chris, I understand.”

Actually, I don’t care if he understands or not. What I really want him to say is …

“Chris, I can fix this. Here’s a dose of Miracle.”

Healed, I will bounce about the neighborhood, kiss more babies than a politician and tip my hat to every pretty woman.

Heck, I’ll even wax the Bentley.

Is that too much to ask?

Family life & Movies 27 Mar 2008 10:50 am

Getting drilled

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I took two of my nephews to the movies yesterday. It was the first time in about eight months that I’d been to the Carnation Mall theaters. My wife and I love to go to the movies, but we generally go in waves, seeing two or three movies in one month, then no movies for the next three or four. And we almost always see movies in Canton.

The older nephew picked “Drillbit Taylor,” starring Owen Wilson. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, and it probably wouldn’t have been his, either, except that he hooked up with a couple of school friends in the ticket line, and that’s the movie they were seeing.

The movie follows a pretty standard formula. Two high school freshmen, sick of getting pummelled by upperclassmen, hire a bodyguard for protection. They don’t know the bodyguard, Drillbit Taylor (Wilson), is actually a homeless bum, at least not until after they form an emotional attachment to him and buy into his fake methods of self-defense. These fake moves get both boys pummelled even worse than before.

You just know the boys are going to find out that “Drillbit” is a fake, and that there will be an obligatory scene where they confront him, and one where he realizes how wrong it was to do what he did. Will it surprise anybody to know that everything ends happily and that the bullies get theirs?

It was fun to take my nephews to the movies, fun to get all three of us in for well under $10, and fun to sit in a fairly crowded afternoon show surrounded by families that had smuggled in their own food and drinks. (I could hear the sounds of soda cans popping open.) The movie itself — well, it wasn’t so fun, but it wasn’t too bad, either. It filled the time, you know, and sometimes that’s all you can ask.

Commentary 26 Mar 2008 06:33 pm

Disappearing Peanuts

OK, what’s the deal?

Two days ago, I posted a review of a Peanuts Treasury by Charles M. Schulz. I praised the book profusely. I called the entry “Peanuts for Peanuts” because I had paid so little for the book.

Today, a friend e-mailed me to ask why the post was empty. I checked and he was right: It said “Peanuts for Peanuts,” but my review was gone. Weird, I thought. I wrote it again and posted it again.

Now, about eight hours later, I check back and find that “Peanuts for Peanuts” is gone again. All that remains is the title, the category, and the tags I wrote. Otherwise, it’s gone.

So does somebody have my password and find it funny to delete only Peanuts postings? Do the Internet gods hate Charles M. Schulz? What’s the deal?

Whatever it is, I’m not posting the review again. I don’t get paid enough for that. Heck, I don’t get paid anything, so any aggravation is too much, as far as I’m concerned.

Books 26 Mar 2008 11:27 am

Peanuts for Peanuts


Commentary 26 Mar 2008 11:12 am

Psst! Can you keep a secret?

And now, for something completely different.

Surfing the net, I came across this article, “11 Don’t-Tell-the-Wife Secrets All Men Keep.” I wouldn’t usually read something like this — why do I care what secrets guys keep from their wives? — but this time, I did.

Know what? I agree with all of them. Go figure. Up next: 10 Great Dinner Ideas Under $15.

Commentary 24 Mar 2008 08:33 am

4,000

Everyone favors nice, round numbers, even when the things the numbers represent aren’t so nice.

This week, people are taking note of 4,000 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, because that number is easier to wrap the mind around than 3,996 — the toll before four more roadside deaths Sunday in Baghdad — or whatever the number will grow to be next week as the tally inches inevitably higher.

But the number pales in comparison to the estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths in the struggle, a number that most Americans tend to wildly underestimate when asked. According to one source, as many as 89,867 Iraqi civilians have died as the war enters its sixth year.

Add those two numbers together and we’re only about 6,000 deaths away from an even more ghastly milestone — 100,000 deaths.

Has it been worth it? How could it be?

Comic books 24 Mar 2008 04:00 am

Beautie-ful comic book

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I’ve been reading Kurt Busiek’s and Brent Anderson’s “Astro City” since the first installment in 1995. The book isn’t published with any regularity; with “Astro City,” quantity takes a backseat to quality.

Busiek uses the series to examine with a fresh eye super heroes, their mythic underpinnings, and their archetypes. The disappointment I felt when reading “Soon I Will Be Invincible” by Austin Grossman — a book that wanted to say something original about the genre but ultimately didn’t — is never a factor with Astro City. Busiek always delivers.

In the latest installment, “Astro City: Beautie,” a plastic heroine with no memory of how she was created is the vehicle for Busiek to explore superficial standards of beauty, gender expectations for children, platonic friendships, and issues of acceptance and rejection. Busiek makes you care about this character, and makes you feel guilty chuckling early on, before you get to know Beauty as more than just another pretty face. He makes readers complicit in her mistreatment, and then lets us off the hook by having us feel outrage over how she is treated in the story’s payoff. It works wonderfully.

These character specials pop up occasionally between chapters of “Astro City: Dark Age,” a sixteen-issue epic that reflects the darkening of comics characters that happened in the 1970s. It’s all great stuff, even if you have to wait a while to get it.

Commentary 22 Mar 2008 09:05 am

Of call girls and commodes

This is my print column from March 20, 2008, published in The Alliance Review: 

 It’s a sad state of affairs, no pun intended, when the peccadilloes of New York’s governor shove the Iraq war, civil unrest in the Middle East and the rotten-tomatoes economy off the front page.

A talking head (voice?) on National Public Radio said now-former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s fall — does anybody else sing “At Spitzer, our world revolves around you!” whenever you hear his name, or just me? — was especially fascinating because he was a bully in Albany, a crusading do-gooder exposed as a hypocrite.

That has nothing to do with it. Most of us were simply caught up in the seediness, and would have been equally absorbed if Spitzer were meek and mild or a known womanizer, like that Democrat who held the land’s highest office and whose wife is making a largely unsuccessful attempt to enshrine him as the first first lady to be a gentleman. (Bill Clinton is many things, but he’s no gentleman, I deadpan in my best W.C. Fields imitation.)

The nation has its latest instant celebrity in Ashley Alexandra Dupre, the call girl whose services Spitzer paid thousands to secure. She’s selling her music singles — “What We Want” and “Move Ya Body” — for top dollar on the Internet, her MySpace page received more than 7 million hits last week, and Penthouse has offered her $1 million to pose naked. Her 15 minutes of fame could net the 22-year-old drug user millions, all because of her most famous john.

Still, a different john caught my attention last week; the one attached to a Kansas woman who sat on her boyfriend’s commode for two years. (How’s that for the royal flush of non sequiturs?)

You probably read or heard about the toilet incident. It was one of those head-scratchers that radio deejays share between songs like “What We Want” and “Move Ya Body,” the kind of bizarre nugget tossed into television newscasts somewhere between, say, a double homicide and the latest cold front. Emergency workers removed the woman from the porcelain throne with a pry bar because her skin had grown around the seat. The boyfriend called for help when he realized — after 24 months! — that she wasn’t going anywhere. Well, she was going in the toilet, apparently, but nowhere else.

I’m sure the woman in question is troubled, and I don’t mean to be insensitive (which is what people always say before they are insensitive), but the whole sit-on-the-pot-for-years gig conjures vivid images, not of this specific couple but of any two people trying to make a relationship work when one of them won’t leave the bathroom. For example:

Feb. 14 — Our intrepid couple enjoys a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner and a movie (courtesy of a 24-inch TV on a rolling stand) in the bathroom.

Easter — They color eggs in the bathroom sink, he with one of those wire contraptions that comes in Paas kits, she with an egg suspended on a spool of baling wire to reach the sink from the commode.

July 4 — He adorns the toilet with small U.S. flags that flutter in the breeze from the ventilation fan above. That night, he opens the window shades so they can see the fireworks.

Halloween — Neighborhood kids climb a flight of stairs and knock on the bathroom door to get miniature Snickers bars and lollipops dropped in their treat bags.

Christmas — A Charlie Brown-style Christmas tree lights the otherwise darkened bathroom as the couple listens for the Plop! Plop! Plop! of each tiny reindeer hoof on the roof overhead.

Everybody was adjusting well until the house’s second toilet stopped working. Then he had to make a tough choice. The relationship lost.

Maybe she thought flagpole sitting was out of fashion. Maybe she read “Horton Hatches the Egg” at an impressionable age. If the Seuss book is ever a movie (like the recent “Horton Hears a Who”), she is a shoo-in for the role of the elephant who sits on the nest through thick and thin.

As for Mayzie, the worthless bird who flies off and leaves Horton stuck with the mess, maybe they could get Eliot Spitzer.

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