Monthly ArchiveMay 2010



Family life 31 May 2010 10:02 pm

Anatomy of a deck

My wife and I finally got around to having a deck built in our backyard. Here are photos taken each morning (or every couple of mornings, allowing for the inevitable Ohio rain) to show the progress. I am posting these from the newly built deck, where — as a bonus — wireless Internet is available. (And, no, I’m not siphoning off the neighbors; I’m connecting to my own network, thank you.)

My only contribution to the cause was writing the checks and power-washing the finished product.

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Commentary 27 May 2010 07:18 pm

James Ballor: Parting waves, shaping lives

Here is this week’s column from The Alliance Review:

When James Ballor strides the halls of Alliance High School, the sea of students parts.

It’s not his height, exactly, even though he towers over most students — and teachers. Nor is it quite his speed, although he does move far faster than the normal flow of traffic. To have a conversation with a moving Ballor requires an extra hop or skip; keep it brief, or you’ll be left out of breath and eating his dust.

It could be the distinguished mustache or the formal attire — suit coat and tie, perfectly creased trousers (never “pants,” he insists, because it’s slang for “underwear” in Britain). But I doubt it.

No, I think students part before him for the same reason that the surf splits before a reef, because they sense something immovable, an implacable force of nature that cannot — will not — be denied. He is a living legend in Alliance academia — a scholar par excellence, the go-to guy on all matters literary or grammatical, a virtual fountain of knowledge regarding music and movies. More to the point, he is a teacher of all of the above, and a damn fine one, to boot.
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Music & Television 26 May 2010 10:49 pm

Cooper on Idol

 

The coolness quotient on American Idol quadrupled tonight with the appearance of Alice Cooper along with the top twelve contestants. See it above, as long as the link stays active on YouTube, that is.

Books & Comic books 24 May 2010 10:48 pm

The Executor

 

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A washed-up professional hockey player returns to his hometown to settle the accounts of his dead high-school girlfriend in The Executor, the latest Vertigo Crime offering. Writer Jon Evans and artist Andrea Mutti practice classic comic-book storytelling. Not once in the book’s 196 pages do they fall back on the caption crutch, instead establishing the setting through careful placement of road signs (the story veers back and forth between Elohra, New York and a nearby Indian reservation) and the plot through skillful nonlinear storytelling.

Evans and Mutti have crafted a flawed but likable protagonist in Joe Ullen, a small-town hero whose trip back to his old stomping grounds unlocks many secrets, including some in himself. The set-up should appeal to anybody who has gone back to his hometown (or looked around it with an outsider’s eye) and realized that it’s not the place it once was in the days of rose-colored glasses. Especially well-done is the locals’ hero worship of Ullen, asking him to autograph hockey sticks and reminisce about his glory days, which weren’t so glorious and ended shortly after they began.

Unlike some other Vertigo Crime entries, this one does not rely on gratuitous sex, violence (although the language is a little rough), or supernatural elements. It is classic mystery/noir with a modern twist. If anything, the story’s shocking revelations aren’t all that shocking, but the story is earnestly and honestly told by two creators who know what they are doing, and that makes it a winner.

Commentary 21 May 2010 05:47 pm

Let loose the dogs of billing

Here is this week’s print column from the pages of The Alliance Review:

Rip, thump.

These are the sounds that herald a case of cell phone “bill shock” — ripping open the envelope and fainting dead away at the charges.

The Federal Communications Commission has opened an investigation into the condition, one that will hopefully lead to a new law requiring telecommunications companies to notify consumers when they are close to exceeding the limits on their plans but before they cross over into Twilight Zone territory where all calls, texts and downloads collectively cost almost as much as a new Ford Explorer.

I’m usually happy to keep the government out of business dealings whenever possible, because it leads to decreased efficiency and higher consumer costs. But this is one case where the feds must step in, if only because most — if not all — cell phone providers are crooks and con artists.

I had a case of cell phone bill shock recently. It was the result of changing our family account from my wife’s name to mine, which the salesman promised would save us 10 percent because I was eligible for a work-related discount and she was not.

Unfortunately, in making the change, the provider didn’t bother to continue our unlimited family text messaging plan. This isn’t such a big deal when your texting consists of a few messages every month, but when you have a daughter for whom texting is as essential to life as breathing, it adds up fast. On average — and I only wish I were exaggerating here — she sends and receives approximately 20,000 messages a month.
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Comic books 20 May 2010 10:29 pm

DC Universe Legacies #1, The Spirit #2

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Think of DC Universe Legacies as Marvels Lite, an attempt to showcase the impact that the DC heroes have on everyday people in the street.

Veteran scribe Len Wein delivers a serviceable script that spotlights the influence of Golden Age heroes Crimson Avenger, the Sandman, and the Atom on a young boy just starting down a road of crime. The real stars here are Andy Kubert and Joe Kubert, the first as penciler and the second as inker. I don’t know if son and father have worked together on art before, but the results here are gorgeous, even if Kubert Sr.’s inks overpower his son’s pencils. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

The issue’s backup story isn’t as good, an attempt by a cynical reporter to explain away logically the fantastic powers of various superheroes. Artist J.G. Jones always provides pretty pictures, but the plot amounts to little more than a shaggy dog story.

I like the premise of Legacies, even if it’s been done before, and if each of the remaining nine issues delivers a modest story coupled with great art (as this debut issue does), I’ll be satisfied. Call it the comic-book version of comfort food if you will, but it is mighty tasty.

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After last month’s solid but unspectacular debut, The Spirit #2 kicks this title into overdrive with an excellent outing. Writer Mark Schultz (of Xenozoic Tales fame) takes the familiar elements of Will Eisner’s most famous creation — his wit, weakness for women, and penchant for getting beaten up — and crafts a superb story. The Spirit’s encounter with deadly Angel Smerti is superbly realized on the artistic end by Moritat, who captures the, uh, spirit of the strip and still manages to carve out his own little parcel of Central City real estate.

The second story, by Harlan Ellison (who has copyrighted his own name) and Kyle Baker, is just as superb, a funny vignette about the Spirit’s attempts to foil the schemes of two grave robbers. Baker has been one of my favorites since his I Die at Midnight some eight years ago, and he’s lost none of his edge in the interim.

All told, an excellent issue, and one that makes renews my optimism in DC’s First Wave imprint.

Movies 19 May 2010 06:39 pm

House of Frankenstein

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My trip down monster-memory lane continues this week with House of Frankenstein, Universal’s 1944 thriller that’s not really all that thrilling.

Probably the coolest bit in the film is seeing Boris Karloff, who originated the role of Universal’s Frankenstein’s Monster, playing a mad scientist type who confronts the Frankenstein Monster, played in this outing by Glenn Strange. Strange isn’t much of an actor, but then again, he isn’t given much to work with here. His appearance is genuinely disturbing, however, especially when his lips purse like a fish out of water. He looks as though he could gum you to death or something.

The story, such as it is, is rather episodic. Karloff and his hunchback assistant, Daniel (whom Karloff irritatingly refers to as “friend Daniel”), played by J. Carrol Naish, escape from prison and hijack a traveling freak show that happens to contain the mortal remains of Count Dracula. Removing the stake from Drac’s heart brings the vampire (played by John Carradine) back to life, just in time for a Reader’s Digest version of Dracula, the novel. Some critics prefer Carradine’s vampire to Bela Lugosi’s. I’m not one of them. Yeah, Lugosi is hammy as hell, but Carradine just doesn’t fit the part, although he’s a lot more fun in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.

Once the immortal Count is again dispatched (by sunlight, natch) the traveling freak show makes its way to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein, which were flooded in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. There, Karloff and company (now joined by a chubby gypsy girl) encounter the Monster and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.). Picking up right where he left off in FMtWM, Chaney’s Larry Talbot wants to die, die, die, even though the chubby gypsy has fallen in love with him, much to the dismay of Naish’s hunchback, who loves her too.

And so it goes. House of Frankenstein is reasonably entertaining, especially to audience members who have fond memories of seeing it at a younger, more impressionable age when the sheer ludicrousness of having so many undead, patched-up, gruesome creatures in one movie isn’t so obvious — and even when the scariest part is Glenn Strange’s guppy lips.

Comic books 16 May 2010 09:03 am

Quick comic reviews

I caught up on some comics reading this weekend. Here are the titles:

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Warlord #14 proves the previous issue wasn’t a fluke. Now that creator/writer Mike Grell has shifted the focus to the title character’s son, he’s gotten out from under the book’s previous history and is free to tell forward-thinking stories again. This issue has dragon-like aliens, a psychic unborn child, some metallurgy with an extraterrestrial material, and another connection between the land at the earth’s core and our surface world. Artist Chad Hardin doesn’t draw like Grell, but his storytelling is clear and uncluttered. From a book I once bought only for Grell’s covers, this has become a title I actually enjoy reading.

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I usually dislike stories that monkey around with the established origin of a well-known character, but I’ll make an exception for Brendan McCarthy’s work on Spider-Man: Fever #2. McCarthy’s take on the character is a throwback to Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man, but it’s also something completely different. This issues adds more of Dr. Strange into the mix, as the sorcerer supreme attempts to rescue Spidey from a weird arachnid world where the spider that originally gave him his powers has a certain amount of … prestige. Very strange, and that’s what makes it memorable. This is the middle chapter of a three-part mini-series; if McCarthy can hold the same high quality in the concluding installment, this one will be a keeper.

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Hands down, Unwritten  is the best regular series being published right now from any company. Even if you only read this as a Harry Potter parody, it’s worthwhile. But Unwritten is so much more — a deconstruction of fictional mythologies, a skewering of our celebrity-obsessed society, and a celebration of the power of story. I was a few issues behind, so I read about four months worth of continuity, and writer Mike Carey really puts poor Tommy Taylor — a protagonist who is constantly confused with his father’s famous boy-wizard creation — through the wringer. In issue #13, artist Peter Gross is back to providing both pencils and inks after a few issues of guest finishers; while the extra hands provided work that reflected the nature of the individual stories, I’m happy to see Gross handling all the chores again.  An exceptional book — a Sandman for the new millennium, maybe?

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Doc Savage #2 is better than the premiere issue, but given the complete meltdown in that opening salvo, that’s not saying much. Paul Malmont’s script is more confidant this time around, but he still seems to be operating under the false assumption that 21st century readers know who Doc Savage and his associates are, so he has yet to really introduce them to us. That is a mistake. Coupled with Howard Porter and Art Thibert’s gruesome art, which looks like some mad fusion of ’50s aesthetics and manga, the book just isn’t clicking the way it should. At least the cover by J.G. Jones captures the pulpish feel that is almost entirely absent from the interiors.

Commentary 14 May 2010 01:41 pm

So many gradations of vacations

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Here is my print column for this week, as originally published in The Alliance Review.

It used to be the English language had one word for relatives taking time off from work and school to travel together: vacation.

Today, when everything is more complicated, we’ve added to the lexicon. A family that elects to hang around home instead of traveling, usually because of negative cash flow, enjoys a staycation, which sounds better than saying, “Me and the old lady ain’t going anywhere this year ’cause we’re broke.”

The New York Times last week reported on the U.K. use of “greycation” to describe a multi-generational getaway. This used to be known as “going on vacation with Grandma and Grandpa.”

In the spirit of tagging every gradation of family travel with a word that rhymes with “vacation” (or at least ends in “-cation”), the travel gnomes here at Left of Center Inc. present the following for your consideration and approval:

  • Neighcation — travel to a dude ranch.
  • Haycation — city folks staying with country folks.
  • Spraycation — a water park destination.
  • Praycation — pilgrimage to a holy shrine or temple (also known as “altarcation,” separate and distinct from “altercation,” which describes what happened last week when a security guard used a Taser gun on a overzealous teenaged fan at a Phillies game, which led to a short-term horizontal-bar hotel vacation).
  • Preycation — a trip to a hunting lodge.
  • Disarraycation — any vacation where the less-organized spouse packs his own suitcase.
  • Weighcation — a calorie-burning sojourn to a fat farm.
  • Claycation — going to a sculptor’s studio.
  • Straycation — a trip by a married person, accompanied by a non-spouse (also known as a betraycation).
  • Dismaycation — where the person paying the bills does nothing but bemoan the cost of the trip and how much debt it adds to his credit card.
  • Mislaycation — spending a week looking for your lost passport or luggage.
  • Clichécation — going to the same place, year after year.
  • Toupeecation — leaving bald, but coming back with a thick head of hair.
  • Pinochetcation — destination Chile.
  • Monetcation — spending time studying water lilies.
  • Dantecation — a week of pure hell with relatives you can’t stand.
  • Flambécation — perfect for the cook who doubles as a pyromaniac.
  • Obeycation — summer school.
  • Reggaecation — New Orleans.
  • Overstaycation — the ideal one-week getaway stretched to two. Also, what this column is in danger of doing to its welcome if it doesn’t end now.

Movies 13 May 2010 09:49 pm

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

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My screening of classic Universal Studios Frankenstein movies continues with 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, probably the quintessential Super Host Saturday afternoon movie (a reference that only makes sense if you grew up in northeast Ohio watching Marty Sullivan on WUAB-Channel 43).

Minus an introduction from Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy shorts (and the promise of a Godzilla movie to follow immediately after), there isn’t quite as much to recommend in FMtWM, although it’s still a fun little picture. The promised meeting between the titular stars — actually, between Wolfie and Frankenstein’s monster), only occurs in the final five minutes, when the monstrous duo snarls and swipes at each other before a conveniently timed flood washes them away.

Bela Lugosi, who appeared in the last two Frankenstein entries as Ygor, dons the famous makeup as Frankenstein’s monster for the first time here. The monster was left blind and in possession of Ygor’s brain in the last entry (Ghost of Frankenstein), so it makes some degree of sense for Bela to assay the role. Unfortunately, because the studio found the prospect of a creature speaking in Lugosi’s thick accent to be risible, it scrapped the monster’s dialogue (as chronicled in the excellent Universal Horrors, which belongs on every horror aficionado’s shelf). This effectively wipes out any reference to the monster’s blindness, so Lugosi’s manner of walking with his arms straight out in front of him, understandable for a blind person, now makes no sense. But as Tom Weaver, Universal Horrors co-writer, has pointed out, it is that very mannerism that has lodged itself in the popular consciousness when imitating the creature. Poor Bela!

FMtWM has a first-class beginning as a straight sequel to The Wolf Man, with Lon Chaney Jr. reprising his role as the hapless Larry Talbot, newly resurrected in a creepy opening scene. In his quest to die and end his werewolf curse, Chaney seeks out an old gypsy woman played by Maria Ouspenskaya, who in turn takes him to see Dr. Frankenstein. Both Frankenstein Sr. and his sons are dead, but Talbot conveniently frees Frankenstein’s monster from an icy tomb, signaling the start of typical Universal monster shenanigans.

If you can get past Chaney acting more like an ape than a wolf, you’ll probably find much to enjoy in this offering. It’s a fun flick, so long as you leave your logic at the door.

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