Monthly ArchiveNovember 2010



Comic books 26 Nov 2010 02:55 pm

A fistful of comics

Now that my comics come in chunks, so will my reviews — shorter, too.

 vr1

Vertigo Resurrected is a new series that reprints some of the best of DC’s creator-owned imprint. This premiere issue gives the reader a bonus: the never-before-published issue of Hellblazer where writer Warren Ellis has John Constantine tackles Columbine and school violence. This lead story was OK, but the depiction of the psychologist investigating the phenomenon of school fatalities distracts and detracts from the plot. Phil Jimenez and Andy Lanning supply lots of gratuitous shots of her in short skirts with long legs. The story itself wasn’t so visual, I understand, and artists have to find something to focus on, but these panels seemed more calculated toward resale value of original art than they did with focusing on the story at hand. Disappointing.

tomb-terror1

I was unfamiliar with all of the creators on the black-and-white one-shot, Tomb of Terror, with the exception of writer Joe Lansdale, who contributes a prose story in the back of the book, and Mark Texeira, who draws the Man-Thing story that opens it. Nevertheless, most of this issue is a winner. The Man-Thing story is the weakest link, because it spends the first few pages tidying up situations from earlier appearances of the character (or at least I think so — it’s been a long time since I followed him/it) and ends up being mostly a shaggy-dog story that reaffirms the basic amorality of the swamp monster. Rob Williams and Jordan Raskin deliver an intriguing Son of Satan story that makes my believe the character could be viable again in a series, while Joe Pruett presents an OK Werewolf By Night story that is almost impossible to follow because of Jordan Raskin’s incomprehensible artwork. The aforementioned Lansdale offers a fun Living Mummy tale illustrated by Giuseppe Camuncoli and Onofrio Catacchio. I wish Marvel could find a place for an ongoing horror anthology that uses these characters and others like them who have languished too long in obscurity, but I doubt the market would support such an endeavor.

thor-5

Thor the Mighty Avenger #5 is so much fun that it almost made me forget that Marvel has pulled the plug on the series. A team-up between Thor and Sub-Mariner could be just an excuse for a slug-fest, but Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee make it so much more, and the key once again is the human element, Jane Foster. Oh, well, three more monthly issues and two forthcoming trade paperbacks isn’t such a bad legacy, but if the comics world were fair, this book would go on for years.

spirit-7

It’s not that the ending of the “Frost Bite” arc in The Spirit #7 is bad, but it is disappointing. After three solid issues, I had hopes that the conclusion would be more definitive. Instead, The Spirit just whales on the bad guys until they can’t take the pressure and crumble, and then the Octopus (whatever he/she/it is) exacts a toll. The backup story has fun art by the legendary Richard Corben, but Jan Strnad’s script is a boring rehash of werewolf cliches that doesn’t do justice to the visuals.

doc-sav7

Too bad nothing inside Doc Savage #7 lives up to the cover image by J.G. Jones. At least writers Ivan Brandon and Brian Azzarello and artist Nic Klein make sure we know who Doc and each member of his crew are, even if we’re not terribly interested in what they’re doing. The Justice back-up feature, which seemed to be picking up steam last issue, sinks right back into the murk this time, too. When you’re only reading a book to keep your collection complete before it’s cancelled — well, that’s not much a reason to read a book.

kickass2

The big news about Kick-Ass 2 #1 is how Tom Palmer’s finishes and ink washes add to the texture of the book as a whole. It’s not that I didn’t like John Romita Jr.’s more detailed pencils on the first series, but anything that gives Palmer more of an opportunity to show his artistic chops is welcome. Mark Millar’s story is more of the same from the original Kick-Ass. It may overstay its welcome before the curtain comes down, but for now, I’m curious to see where he’ll take Dave Lizewski as the teen’s exploits have inspire a slew of costumed vigilantes.

stand-hardcases-4

For my money, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Mike Perkins are creating one of the great novel-to-comics adaptations here, and nothing about The Stand: Hardcases #4 changes that. My only concern is that reader interest in the title may have waned in these middle chapters. I hope that sales remain strong enough to allow the team to conclude their interpretation of King’s seminal work without compromising length or quality. Once all these issues are collected in one place, people who overlooked the series of mini-series are going to realize what a great work this is.

batman-100-page

The impetus behind these 100-page spectaculars is to revisit Batman stories that haven’t been collected in trade paperback for one reason or another. This premiere issue highlights work by Ed Brubaker and Scott McDaniel from 2002-2004. The best story in the issue is “The Dark Knight Project,” where two young filmmakers set out to create a documentary on the Caped Crusader and end up with more than they bargained for. Brubaker’s scripts don’t demonstrate the same command of plot and character as later efforts like Sleeper, Criminal and Incognito, but they get the job done. Scott McDaniel’s art, while distinctive, doesn’t fit the character very well, making Batman look more blocky than mysterious. He does, however, draw a mean Penguin. For the price, these 100-pagers are a reasonable way to sample characters and creators.

Commentary 24 Nov 2010 01:15 pm

Of mustaches and men’s causes

This week’s column:

Don’t you hate when you learn about a cause after it’s too late to join?

That’s how I felt this week when I learned about Movember, a cross between “mo,” a slangy abbreviation for moustache, and November, a slangy abbreviation for the Month before Christmas.

Movember, according to its followers, is a chance for men to grow ’staches to support a charity publicizing various cancers that attack men, including, but not limited to, prostate cancer. Think of it as the Y-chromosome version of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but with a big hairy mouse under the nose in place of pink ribbons.

Here’s why I’m bummed: While it’s not too late to donate to the cause (visit movember.com to learn how), it’s definitely too late for me to grow anything resembling a decent mustache in these last days of the month.

Some men (and a few women, sad to say) have the ability to sprout a ’stache overnight. I am not part of this select company. Were I to begin growing a hairy lip today, it would not bear fruit, so to speak, until spring at the earliest.

It’s not my fault; it’s a quirk of genetics. From the first Schilligs, who traveled here on the Mayflower (or maybe it was the Santa Maria — great-grandpa was always pretty sketchy about the roots of the family tree), we’ve been the human equivalent of the Mexican hairless, our faces as smooth as those shivering little Chihuahuas popping their heads out of debutantes’ purses.

My first attempt to fight the family curse and sprout sufficient facial hair came in my early 20s, when I desperately wanted to look older than my years. After three months of cultivation — Scotts Turf Builder in the early going, under-the-bed dust bunnies and Elmer’s Glue in the later, more desperate days — the best I could do was a thin line that looked like it had been drawn on with a half-dry Sharpie.

Pictures from that period make me cringe. Unfortunately, because my hirsute experiment coincided with the birth of my daughter, family photos inadvertently documenting the rise and fall of my mustache are plentiful.

“There’s Rico,” some family wit will chime in, followed by another comedian who rubs at the print with a thumb, “to remove whatever smudge is under Chris’s lip.”

After months of haranguing, I put the poor thing out of its misery and shaved it away. In one final indignity, the little bit of hair that I had cultivated wasn’t even enough to clog the bathroom sink.

I tried again a few years ago, with minimally more luck. This time I went for broke, shepherding a beard into existence. Again, the results didn’t merit the term “beard,” which makes me think of rugged men lassoing wild stallions out West somewhere, but at least the ’stache portion was legitimate. Still, the growth took most of a summer, and even then looked so scanty that when people I hadn’t seen for some time commented on my new look in, say, October, I lied and said I had just started growing it a month earlier.

Eventually, the beard and accompanying mustache went the way of the passenger pigeon, as well. I must have done something right, however, because at least I had to use the plunger on the sink after shaving. That’s progress of a sort.

So I’m sorry for the missed opportunity this Movember, but I still think the cause is worth supporting, both financially and facially.

On the positive side, if I start immediately, by Movember 2011, I might have a respectable mustache, one that won’t look like an anemic rodent suffocated while trying to escape from my nose.

Comic books 22 Nov 2010 11:15 pm

Incognito: Bad Influences #1

 

incognito-1 

One thing I’m learning from receiving comic books through a mail-order service is that most of my buys are done on impulse. When I opened this month’s package, several of the books there were titles that looked good at the time I placed the order, but which no longer interested me as much (or at all).

Luckily, this was not the case with Incognito: Bad Influences #1 by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. I enjoyed the first series so much that I double-dipped when the trade paperback was released, and when this sequel mini-series was announced, I was all over it.

As far as the plot goes, I feel like Brubaker has been over this ground before. The set-up here for Max Overkill to become a double-agent sounds a lot like Sleeper, the classic Wildstorm series from the same two creators. But I’m willing to cut the creators some slack, as the concept of a reformed super-villain returning to the side of the devils still has a lot of mileage. We’ll see how it plays out. I’m less enthralled by the subplot of Zack sleeping with Zoe Zeppelin. That one was too obvious from the first time she was introduced, and I thought Brubaker would skip it for that very reason. Ah, well, maybe (or likely) there’s a trick up his sleeve for that, too.

Books & Comic books 21 Nov 2010 02:15 pm

Richard Stark’s Parker Book Two: The Outfit

 the-outfit

Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of the Parker novels by Richard Stark are truly treasures.

The Outfit, the second title released by IDW, continues the story that Cooke (and Stark) began in The Hunter last year. It combines material from the third Parker novel with the small amount of Parker-related content from Stark’s second book in the series, The Man with the Getaway Face.  

What works so well here is that Cooke is not merely adapting the book, translating its plot into words and pictures, but that he is instead transforming the novel into comic-book form, finding the most appropriate way to present the material so that it works first and foremost as a pictorial. Nowhere is this more true than in part three, when the various capers that Parker’s associates pull against a national crime syndicate (the “Outfit” of the title) are cunningly related as an illustrated magazine tabloid, as a series of funny cartoons that would be at home in the New Yorker, and as a flow-chart that looks like the little “how-to” brochures popular in previous years. When Cooke knows that he cannot improve upon Stark’s prose, as in the Club Cockatoo raid, he simply presents the author’s original words, with pictures to accompany. That’s the sign of a sure and steady hand at the wheel.

What I like best about these adaptations is the melding of grim-and-gritty noir with ’50s and ’60s advertising and pop-art aesthetics. This book is designed to look retro and feel retro, and it works to the material’s advantage. The Hunter won Cooke a much-deserved Eisner Award. This sequel deserves the same.

The last page of the book promises a return of Stark in 2012. I, for one, can’t wait.

 

 

Commentary 18 Nov 2010 11:42 pm

Exorcists Inc.

This week’s column:

The Catholic Church held exorcism school last weekend, perhaps waiting until after midterm elections for fear of dispossessing most candidates.

This Lucifer-stomping training camp was held, appropriately enough, in Baltimore, where the Devil made Art Modell take the Browns in 1996 when Cleveland wasn’t good enough anymore, and where that alcoholic sinner Edgar Allan Poe breathed his last. (That the Browns were redubbed the Ravens after Poe’s most famous work is further proof that the city is overdue for a communal purging of unclean spirits.)

I’m curious about exorcism school curriculum. Do they start the day like employees at big-box retailers, with calisthenics and team-building chants (”Devil, devil, you’re so bad, you’re so bad you leave my pad!”), followed by seminars like “Bed Levitation 101,” “Forget Freud” and “Staying Hydrated with Holy Water,” and wrap with a lunch of green pea soup?

While the training itself remains shrouded in mystery, a WikiLeaks document has surfaced that purports to be the exorcists’ final exam. Potential practitioners need to answer at least two-thirds of the questions correctly (a 66.6 percent, of course). A few of the questions are reprinted below.

1. Which of the following celebrities is possessed by the devil? L. The couch-jumping Tom Cruise; M. The meat-wearing Lady Gaga; N. The anti-Semite, anti-women, anti-everything Mel Gibson; or O. All of the above.

2. What is the best song to play during an exorcism? J. “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones; K. “Running with the Devil” by Van Halen; L. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band; or M. “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC.

3. If you encounter the devil online, what is the best way to deal with him? A. Try to capture his image on a piece of toast and sell it on eBay; B. Unfriend him on Facebook; C. Sprinkle holy water on your hard drive; or D. E-mail him a virus.

4. How can you tell if a cat has been possessed? P. Its head will spin around 360 degrees; Q. It will scratch “Red rum” in its litter; R. It will deposit strange, ungainly dead animals on the front porch (or just socks on the kitchen floor, if it’s an indoor pet); or S. It doesn’t matter because all cats are possessed.

5. How do you determine which person at a Weight Watchers meeting has been infiltrated by the devil? A. Scream, “I know the body’s your temple, but some of you are building cathedrals!” and see who turns reddest; B. Observe which one can levitate a party bowl filled with chips and salsa; C. Yell “Zero points for M&Ms” in Latin and see who dives for the green ones; or D. Threaten to take them all to the gym, and watch who projectile vomits first.

6. Where are you most likely to encounter the highest concentration of devils? O. At a Tea Party convention; P. In Congress; Q. At the American Bar Association national convention; or R. in a seventh-grade classroom.

7. While waiting in line at the local grocery store, you notice the following deviant behavior. Which person is possessed? A. The old woman holding up the line by arguing with the cashier over an expired 25-cent coupon; B. The twitchy guy behind you trying to make his imaginary dog heel; C. The employee lounging in the frozen section, studiously avoiding eye contact with customers who need help; or D. You, because you’re in a grocery store the week before Thanksgiving.

8. A woman walking in front of you suddenly stops and begins screaming. Besides demonic possession, what is the most likely cause? T. Her boyfriend has just broken up with her via text message; U. Her iPod has just lost its charge, leaving her without music; V. Her trick knee from an old college track injury has just popped out of place; or W. Her belly-button piercing has just come undone.

9. Which is least likely to be in an exorcist’s bag of tricks? A. Bible; B. Crucifix; C. Prescription pad for Zoloft; or D. Life-sized photo of Max Von Sydow.

10. How do you dispel a particularly tough demon? F. Shout it out; G. Play it Slim Whitman songs until its head explodes; H. Invite it into your own body, and then throw yourself out a window; or I. Offer it a leveraged buyout or a golden parachute.

The answers are OLD SCRATCH, which I firmly believe you should itch. If you did well, consider applying at Exorcism U, home of the Fighting Devils.

Books & Comic books 14 Nov 2010 09:32 pm

Superman Earth One

 superman-earth-one

Superman Earth One has polarized fans of the Man of Steel, with some finding it a worthy “rebooting” of the venerable character, and others believing it is little more than pandering to today’s Twilight-obsessed tweens and teens.

Put me firmly in the former camp. Writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Shane Davis have crafted a wonderful new start for Superman with this graphic novel, one that manages to put a fresh spin on the character’s familiar origin without jettisoning what makes him iconic. It reads much like Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man series in that regard, where everything old is new again, updated for a new millennium but still with a nod toward tradition.

[Minor spoilers below.]

The book begins with Clark arriving in Metropolis to find his place in the world. Through flashbacks, the reader learns that he has no knowledge of his Kryptonian heritage, but knows only that he came from the stars in a ship that crashed on Earth, where he was found by the Kents. Pa Kent has already died by the time this story begins, a major break with the John Byrne reboot of the 1980s. Clark isn’t at all sure what his destiny will be; after renting a dive in a bad part of town, he applies for positions with major league sports teams, think tanks, and a run-down Daily Planet. Of course, he excels at all of them except the journalism gig, where Perry White notes that his writing is “fine, but nothing special.” Guess which job he settles on?

Other reviewers have noted that this graphic novel doesn’t really get started until an alien invasion begins. I disagree. The early pages are charming; I like Clark bumming around Metropolis, and I even like the much-reviled hood he wears in one scene, making him look a bit emo.

What I liked most about this novel is the sense that anything can now happen in the Superman universe. I could buy this Superman telling humanity to stuff it just as easily as I could see him staying around to protect us through the long haul. I like the subtext about sacrifice, duty and honor, and also Straczynski’s unabashed love letter to print media, evidenced by his scrappy Perry White and the editor’s can-do attitude. I like that this Superman’s Krypton is a little fuzzy around the edges (maybe even morally fuzzy, if we take the word of the book’s villain), and I look forward to learning more.  

What I didn’t like about this GN:

1. Shane Davis is a fine artist, and I can understand why he was selected here: his style is a blend of classic superhero with a touch of manga thrown in. It works. The only problem I have is with his depiction of Superman himself. The character’s head looks too big, his frame a little too gangly, to be an effective Man of Steel. While I don’t fault Davis for the minor costume changes here, I also don’t like them. There is an odd, sculpted-muscle-tone look to Superman’s abdomen that puts me in mind of a Kevlar vest. Not necessary. 

2. The alien villain looks like a juggalo instead of a serious, intergalactic threat.

3. My biggest gripe is something that won’t cause too many readers to even bat an eye: Clark’s interview with Superman at the book’s end. It totally undercuts the integrity-in-journalism theme I mentioned earlier, as it means that Clark gets his job at the Planet under false pretenses, through a faked interview that bumps Lois’s factual story off Page One. Maybe in an era of partisan journalism (Fox, MSNBC), this won’t rankle anybody except crotchety old-timers who believe that what appears beneath a reporter’s byline in the main news section of a newspaper ought to be objective and fair. Clark HAS no objectivity where Superman is concerned, because he and Superman are one and the same. To write about Superman as if he is another person is unfair and a lie, and if White knew about it, Clark’s nice little speech at the end of the novel wouldn’t mean squat. He would be fired, and deservedly so. (Another minor annoyance: Clark’s bylined story is difficult to read because it runs into the binding of the book.)

To be fair, Straczynski didn’t create this skewed Clark/Superman/reporter dynamic. It’s bugged the hell out of me all the way back in the days when Clark would “scoop” Lois — a hardworking, non-superpowered reporter — because he was Superman and could cover his own news more effectively than she. By blocking the career advancement of a talented reporter (and seemingly delighting in it), he showed a misogynistic streak very unbecoming of an iconic hero. I had hoped this would be one trait that would be smoothed over in this rebooting, and maybe Straczynski has plans to address it in later installments, but otherwise it’s the one truly false note in an otherwise stellar reimagining.

Overall, Straczynski and Davis have created the template that Hollywood should follow in its next attempt to adapt Superman for the big screen. If Warner would just film this graphic novel, they’d have a definite winner. As it stands, I look forward to a sequel to Superman Earth One that builds on the strong groundwork established here.

Books 14 Nov 2010 03:19 pm

Just After Sunset

 just-after-sunset

The receipt I used as a bookmark in Stephen King’s Just After Sunset shows that I bought the book on November 28, 2008, so it’s taken me almost two years to finish. That shouldn’t be seen as a negative, but rather as a strength of the short-story form. I dipped into the book periodically over the last 24 months, catching a story here and a story there in between reading longer works (including King’s own Under the Dome, a behemoth that I tore through relatively quickly, in about five weeks).

This collection is solid. While a few stories wear out their welcome (”The Gingerbread Girl” and “Stationary Bike”), most offer proof that the short-story format is alive and well — maybe today more than ever in a society that suffers from near-universal ADHD. The best of the bunch is “N.,” which puts a wicked spin on obsessive-compulsive disorder (and which I read first in a graphic-novel adaptation earlier this year), but King also gets good mileage from some standard Edgar Allan Poe tropes, such as evil felines (”The Cat from Hell”) and being buried alive (”A Very Tight Place”) . The latter is notable for creating a very real sense of claustrophobia; unfortunately, it sputters out with an unsatisfying ending.

Overall, this collection has whetted my appetite for King’s latest, Full Dark No Stars, released earlier this week. That book contains four novellas and has been receiving positive reviews. I’m excited to get to it. Hopefully, it won’t take me two more years to complete.

Commentary 11 Nov 2010 10:56 pm

One big consumer fest

My latest column:

Welcome to day 130 of the Consumer Shopping Season, the only holiday truly celebrated in 21st-century America.

Forget the natural and traditional markers of the year: summer and winter solstice, falling back and springing ahead of clocks, blazing autumn leaves and those first frozen flakes of precipitation. They’re all so old school, the way we used to mark time before Madison Avenue had its way with us. For Homo consumericus, shopping man, the seasons are instead set by a financial line of demarcation that neatly separates the year into two — the season of not buying and the season of buying.

The blissful non-buying season runs from the end of Easter through the Fourth of July, a few short months when, with the exception of illegal fireworks, we have very little to explode our budgets and deplete our pocketbooks.

The opening of buying season, then, corresponds with the end of Independence Day, when the back-to-school shopping frenzy begins. From that moment on, it’s a continual onslaught of pseudo-news and all-too-real advertising designed to separate us from our hard-earned dollars. One after another, retailers roll out merchandise for Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, interspersing among this holy trinity smaller revels such as Columbus Day and Sweetest Day, that red-headed stepchild of the celebratory set.

Like hunters in the woods, retailers know the deer are running this time of year, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to flush us out of the thicket of economic doldrums and into the clearing of their brightly lit aisles, where they can pick us off, one by one.

I suggest truth in advertising through the abolition of the three separate holidays and the establishment of one super celebration — HallowThanksMas (or Christgivingween, if you prefer) where a grinning skeleton in a Santa suit delivers toys to good little boys and girls while riding on a sleigh pulled by turkeys. Rudolph, the Red-Bearded Gobbler, leads the pack, while pilgrims take the place of elves at Santa’s North Pole hideaway.

HallowThanksMas would save cash-strapped retailers from changing displays. It’s become almost a cliché to comment on how quickly Christmas decorations go up on Halloween day, the vampires carted off to the back of the store to be replaced by Santa Claus, a red bloodsucker of a different variety. With Cadaver Claus as the national mascot of this new holiday, store signage would remain constant, needing only to be dusted every few weeks.

Another benefit is that home decorations could be put up before the weather turns cold, and stay up until summer (just as Christmas decorations do now). While it’s true that retailers would lose the opportunity to sell separate decorations for each holiday, the first-year turnover — when everybody trashes existing lights, wreaths and centerpieces and replaces them with new — would be a boon, and every year thereafter, retailers could simply charge three times as much for bulbs of orange, black and red. Because houses would need to be laden with decorations for three months, electric bills would soar, a boon for public utilities.

Parents who worry that Halloween is a celebration of evil can rest easy, too, as kids could carve turkeys and Santas into their pumpkins, bob for ornaments, and go door to door in costume to sing carols in exchange for candy, all far less foreboding than current Beggars’ Night practices.

Speaking of carols, lyrics to seasonal favorites would need tweaking to reflect the new reality. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like HallowThanksMas,” “O Christgivingween Tree,” and “Here Comes Santa Claws” may not roll as trippingly off the tongue as the originals, but in a few years people whose brains have been addled by a constant stream of credit card statements will hardly know the difference.

For traditionalists who worry that we will lose more than we would gain by pulling the plug on Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas as individual holidays, I say it hardly matters. We have already largely separated ourselves from the true meaning of the individual holidays anyway, so why not make a clean break and fully embrace the new aesthetic?

In case you think this is a joke, a Google search reveals the movement toward HallowThanksMas (which I mistakenly believed I coined six paragraphs ago) has been afoot for many years. Sadly, the term is already copyrighted, thus foiling yet again my attempts to rule the world.

Oh, well, at least they have a nifty T-shirt to buy*, moving us one step closer to the day when we will be one nation, under Wal-Mart, with liberal credit and crass commercialism for all.

*Learn more at hallowthanksmas.com.

Commentary 04 Nov 2010 10:09 pm

A toast to the toaster

This week’s column contains no reference to elections or politicians, for those who are sick of both:

I don’t believe in planned obsolescence, but my wife does.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know that some objects have a built-in shelf life — you’re only going to get so many years out of a lawnmower or a sweeper, for instance, before you have to trundle off to the store for a replacement. But I believe in delaying that day as long as possible, which is why our washing machine has been around since “The Cosby Show” was airing first-run episodes, or why some outfits in my wardrobe would fit right in at Woodstock.

Until last week, the family toaster was a prime example of stretching aesthetics and functionality. Purchased some 10 years ago at Wal-Mart, it was a little electric marvel; the veteran of many bread slices.

Yet from day one, my wife hated that toaster, seeing it as a symbol of my cheapskate nature. She called it my $6.88 folly, and any mention of toast or bagels was enough to cause her to launch into a polished comedy routine about my frugality — how we must always buy the least expensive item in any category; how I rescued a lawnmower from my father-in-law’s trash, tied on its wheels with baling twine, and milked it for another year of use; and how I once stapled a ripped T-shirt for a few extra wears.

It didn’t help that the toaster was erratic, producing burnt product one time, doughy product the next. Over the years, the timer knob proved to be a tad random, spinning freely and becoming so worn that it was difficult to determine if it was set for “golden brown” or “nuclear holocaust.”

A melted plastic bread bag had left a Schwebel’s clown tattooed onto one side of the toaster; for years, his smiling visage faced the kitchen wall, hidden like a shameful secret. Recently, the other side was similarly inked, this time with a Wonder Bread bag. (We’re not exactly loyal to our bread brands at Casa Schillig.)

Despite all these issues — and the constant browbeating I received whenever the subject of toast popped up — I refused to part with the stunted, ugly device because it still produced morning after morning, with a maintenance plan that involved only a dumping of burnt crumbs every six months or so.

I’m convinced the Wonder Bread bag melting was the tipping point in my wife’s decision to retire the toaster, a formerly empty threat that she finally acted on last week. Old Faithful, the little toaster that could, was replaced with a sleeker, sexier model. She didn’t select the most expensive brand in the store, but she spent about four times as much on the replacement, even with a coupon.

Our new toaster is more like an ATM terminal, with lots of numbers and buttons and a digital readout. It came with an instruction manual — an instruction manual! — that explains how to make the perfect toast. Different settings allow users to defrost, reheat or cancel. (With the former appliance, “cancel” meant pulling the plug.) It has a separate setting for bagels, and an LED numerical display that glows like a cheery little bonfire.

Compared to toaster number one, this Johnny-come-lately is a behemoth, gobbling up counter space and dominating the kitchen landscape like Mount Rushmore with a power cord. When a slice of bread is dropped into its extra-wide slot, one can almost hear a host of heavenly angels lifting their voices in a hymn of praise — “Adeste Bagelous” or something.

And yet, the first bagel my wife retrieved from the sparkling-new innards of her miracle machine looked more like it had gone through Dante’s Inferno. It was burned beyond recognition.

I fought back the urge to fish out the old toaster from the trash can and say, “I told you so.” After all, a woman who can retire a perfectly good toaster by invoking planned obsolescence could probably do the same for an old, slightly dinged, husband.

Movies 04 Nov 2010 10:05 pm

The Innocents

 innocents

Something weird is happening at Bly, the English country estate where a governess played by Deborah Kerr has been hired to care for two young children in The Innocents. This faithful adaptation of Turn of the Screw by Henry James isn’t for horror fans who demand blood, violence, and in-your-face frights, but rather for those who appreciate a traditional ghost stories with more subtle suspense.

I didn’t care for the first half hour or so, which moves too slowly. But the second half picks up the pace, and director Jack Clayton knows how to keep the audience feeling uneasy with the occasional ghostly apparition and lots of hand-wringing conversations between Kerr and Megs Jenkins, who plays portly housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Writers William Archibald and Truman Capote stick closely to the original, but on the few occasions when they stray from the source – as they do with young Miles’s obsession with pigeons and a creepy game of dress-up — add to the macabre mood. A weird filter over the camera adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, especially in the night sequences.

The neatest trick of the production is to replicate the ambiguity of the original novella, so that the audience is never sure if the ghosts are real or figments (phantoms?) of Kerr’s imagination. My only major complaint is that Kerr is a little too mature for her role as a 20-year-old governess; when she tells the children’s uncle that this will be her first position, it made me wonder what she’d done for a living for the last fifteen years.

Overall, The Innocents is an enjoyable horror entry in the traditional mode, and those never go out of style.

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