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» 2009 » April

Monthly ArchiveApril 2009

Media 29 Apr 2009 10:52 pm

Out of the mouths of babes


I always tell my students that the longest legitimate word in English is “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Now it shows up in the mouth of a baby in this Dairy Queen commercial, which is beyond funny.

Movies 28 Apr 2009 11:22 pm

Enhanced prestige


Many of the talented folks who brought us Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are also responsible for The Prestige (2006), a film released between the two tent-pole Batman films. The three movies share the same director, Christopher Nolan; screenwriters, Nolan and his brother, Johnathan Nolan; and onscreen talents Christian Bale and Michael Caine. Unlike the two Bat films, The Prestige isn’t as immediately accessible, but it does reward close — and repeated — viewing.

Bale and Hugh Jackman (who’ll fill thousands of screens as Wolverine this weekend) play rival magicians in turn of the century London. Both seek the ultimate illusion, The Transported Man, and both find very different routes to performing it. Nolan tells the film in a nonlinear fashion, jumping among at least four time periods in the narrative, each scene adding to or changing our perceptions of the ones that came before. The movie is structured like a magic trick, with sleight of hand and misdirection galore. (The title refers to the moment in an illusion when the disappearing subject — be it bird, lovely assistant, or magician — reappears.)
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Movies 25 Apr 2009 04:04 pm

Balancing the scales


A movie like The Alligator People (1959) reminds me of Saturday afternoons watching Super Host on WUAB Channel 43 out of Lorain, greatest of all area UHF stations from the era of rabbit-ear antennas. This is exactly the kind of movie that would have been perfect on Marty Sullivan’s show.

Lon Chaney Jr. is third-billed as a dirtbag Captain Hook of sorts obsessed with killing the alligator that ate his hand. The real story involves a nurse, Joyce Webster (Beverly Garland), whose fiance, Paul (Richard Crane), makes a miraculous recovery from a plane crash only to walk off into the darkness on the night of their honeymoon. After months of looking, she tracks him to a Southern plantation, owned by his mother. (And the same one where Chaney is
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Commentary 24 Apr 2009 07:14 am

Commode conundrum (a.k.a. toilet trouble)

This is my print column from April 23, 2009, as seen in The Alliance Review:

“Today I am a man!” shouts Harvey Pekar, plunger over his head, kneeling before the porcelain god he has successfully unclogged.

In American Splendor: Another Day, a collection of vignettes presented as comic-book stories, Pekar compares fixing a toilet to a bar mitzvah, how he was reluctant at age 13 to utter the five words that signal the change from childhood to adulthood because he was a “klutz” who “couldn’t do mechanical stuff … couldn’t fix anything.”*

I know exactly how he feels about the agony and ecstasy of being all thumbs at home repairs.

This week, the sole toilet at Casa Schillig started to work overtime, gurgling water long after it should have. Luckily, it didn’t overflow, but for a few days, gallons were wasted, driving up the water bill and making us poster children for “Conspicuous Consumption.”
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Media & Television 23 Apr 2009 10:16 pm

As Seen on TV


CNBC premiered a news special Wednesday called As Seen on TV, an in-depth look at direct response advertising. The special trades on the fascination and, yes, the fondness that many viewers have for infomercials, trotting out Chia Pet and ShamWow, Ginsu knives and that new star of the infomercial firmament, the Snuggie.

Along with these familiar products come their pitchmen, including Ron Popeil of Pocket Fisherman and Showtime rotisserie grill fame. The special also features an interview with the heir apparent to the Popeil pitchman throne, Billy Mays, who comes across as quiet and self-effacing, a far cry from his in-your-face sales persona.

There’s a brief attempt to get serious about the whole ”as seen on TV” empire of spurious claims via interviews with government types who want to tighten the reins on advertising requirements, and even a monitoring agency funded by the industry itself. But let’s face it, networks — including CNBC — make too much money from infomercials to risk killing this cash cow, so this special mostly worships at the altar of infomercials. Fun and worth a look. As Seen on TV airs next at 10 p.m. Sunday, April 26, on CNBC. Or watch it on Hulu by clicking here.

Movies 22 Apr 2009 10:00 pm

2B or not 2B


Thursday (April 23) is Shakespeare’s likely birthday — he was christened on April 26, so most people count back three days to establish a probable birth date. It is also convenient because he died on April 23, which bums out many of my students: “It would suck to die on your birthday.” My response is it would suck to die on any day, so a birthday is no better or worse than any other.

Anyway, that’s a long-winded introduction to a long-winded movie, Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour adaptation of the Bard’s best-known work, Hamlet. In almost all ways, it is exceptional. Some critics have dinged Branagh for his performance in the lead role, saying he is too much a man of action to play the melancholy Prince of Denmark. That’s ridiculous. Hamlet himself is a man of action, restrained in his attempts to rub out his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) by his ambitions to ascend the throne himself. To that end, Hamlet feigns madness, casts off his true love, Ophelia (expertly played here by Kate Winslet), and suffers himself to be exiled to England, a fate avoided by the timely intervention of pirates. (Hey, even Shakespeare can be forgiven one improbable plot twist.)
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Movies 21 Apr 2009 08:23 pm

A dandy Yankee


My film studies class has been watching musicals lately. This is genre I generally avoid, selfishly, because I have little appreciation for the artistry involved. It’s hard to get past the convention of folks breaking into song and dance at a moment’s notice and nobody else in the scene thinking it is strange. I have been slowly overcoming this hangup, however, because the convention is no worse than some others — I’m thinking of soliloquies and asides in the legitimate theater — and is a silly reason to avoid musicals.

Our first sojourn into the musical realm was Yankee Doodle Dandy, a very atypical role for James Cagney, who usually plays tough guys and gangsters. My favorite Cagney performance (and I haven’t seen them all) is 1949’s White Heat — “Look at me, ma, I’m on top of the world!” — but his performance in Yankee Doodle is pretty good, too. Plus, he took home his only Oscar here.
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Movies 19 Apr 2009 09:43 pm

Been Hur, done that


 I was a week too late to watch the quintessential Easter film, Ben-Hur, on Easter, but at least I got around to it on Greek Orthodox Easter weekend.

Ben-Hur is a film that holds a special meaning for me. It was one of the movies that my sixth- or seventh-grade class watched in school, back in the days when that meant a teacher threading spools of film, changing them periodically, and projecting the images on a white wall. I attended Marlington Middle School, and each section (we called ‘em “houses”) of the school had a large common room big enough to hold mass quantities of kids; it was in one of these common rooms that we watched Ben-Hur, probably as the culminating event in a study of ancient Rome or some such. It took a loooong time to watch it, because it is a loooong film, and in retrospect was likely chosen to give my teachers a well-deserved break from working with middle school kids. I don’t blame them a bit.

So I can’t watch the movie with anything resembling objectivity. Doesn’t matter. Enough critics agree it is a great movie; it always makes just about everybody’s Top 100 list, sometimes coming in close to the top. It’s likely in my top ten, even though I don’t watch it all that often.
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Media 19 Apr 2009 08:23 am

Nothing up his sleeve

This video is impressive. I expected the narrator to do something stupid, like smash the bottle, until he announced that he would remove the cork without breakage. I’m still not certain that I’m not missing some sleight of hand, but it appears legit. Too bad I don’t have any corks and bottles to try it myself.

Commentary 18 Apr 2009 08:43 pm

First day of spring

No matter what the calendar says, today is the first day of spring because it’s the first time I mowed the grass this year. I’ve been putting off the dreaded cutting because once started, it becomes a weekly (and sometimes a twice-weekly) obligation.

I really should have taken the shears to the lawn last Sunday, but I laid off because it was Easter and cold. Not necessarily in that order. Today I had no excuse — temperatures in the 70s, lots of sunshine, enough time to mow my little postage stamp of earth and still have enough time to do other things too.

It’s also the first day this year I’ve been on my bicycle. I rode it to The Review after I mowed. It’s downhill all the way there, so that part’s a snap. Coming back is the real bummer.

This was also the day I drove my wife and three of her friends to the Cleveland airport to catch a flight to Florida, where they boarded a cruise ship for a girls’ week vacation. Through the wonders of modern technology, I’ve heard from her a dozen times already — several cell phone calls, lots of text messages. The cruise ship pulled out of dock a few hours ago, and with a surcharge added to each call, we’ve decided to limit cell phone contact from here on out.

Being a “bachelor” again — OK, not really (not at all, in reality) — is weird. Whenever my wife goes out of town, the most anarchic thing I can think to do is watch Marx Brothers movies. I’ve resisted the temptation so far, but only because I was outside all day. Tonight’s another story …

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