28 July 2011

On Feminism

While pursuing my bachelor of arts degree at the University of Louisville, I had occasion to take a pair of courses from the Women's & Gender Studies program.  When this arose in conversation with some of my friends--themselves fairly liberal, I might add--I was surprised to hear them marginalize the subject matter.  It wasn't "real" history, I was told.  I didn't buy that.  I subscribe to the notion that, unless the facts are outright fabricated or the interpretations are willfully selective about which facts to acknowledge, that all history is "real" history.  The issues facing women were (and are) certainly real, and given that as much as 60% or more of our population has been women at one time or another, I don't think this is some kind of trivial, niche study.
Amelia Bloomer

During my junior year, I took Women in American History (or some such title).  There were about 40 or so students in the course, and three of us were guys.  Of the others, one sat at the same table as me--all the way in the back of the class, with a female student on either side of him.  The other male student sat elsewhere and was frequently absent.  I can't speak for the other guy at my table, but I elected to sit there for one simple reason: I am lazy.  There were two doorways, one at either end of the class, and by sitting in the back, I was nearest one of the doorways.  I'm sure, however, our classmates and probably our professor surmised we were uncomfortable in the class.

Me being me, however, I quickly dispelled any notions that I was intimidated by studying women's history in a class taught by a woman and full of women students.  I threw my hand up at almost every turn, offering thoughts and asking questions whenever they occurred to me.  It was never my intention to dominate the class, but rather to participate in it.  Firstly, I sincerely enjoyed the material.  Secondly, I wanted to prove that there were (and are) male students who take women's history seriously.  It was easy for me to empathize with the Grimke sisters, Jane Adams, etc.  I found a personal favorite historical figure in Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

My classmates at first seemed a little unsure of me.  What was I even doing there? I'm sure some of them wondered.  I'm also certain that at least a few of them expected me to say offensive, dense things like, "But none of this is actually important" or "Who even cares what these chicks did?"  Eventually, I felt accepted and even respected to a point for voicing my thoughts.  Few of my classmates ever really spoke with me--which was true of every class I ever took at the college level--but I got used to hearing phrases like, "I agree with Travis" and "I think he's right" when our professor sought other opinions.

During my final semester, the end of my senior year, I took a course about women's history taught by the head of the Women's & Gender Studies department.  In that class, I took a seat in the front row all the way to the right...directly in front of the door because, as I've explained, I'm lazy.  Plus, by then I had been diagnosed with Crohn's disease and wanted to minimize any disruptions I might cause by sporadically bolting to the nearest bathroom.  On our first day of class, our professor had us introduce ourselves.  Taking note of how I was dressed, I started by saying, "I'm a guy in a class about women's history and I'm wearing a James Bond tie.  I must be the Devil."  That got a few uncomfortable chuckles, which was practically a standing ovation so far as I was concerned.  Again, I was one of just a few male students and again, I quickly won the respect of my fellow students through my frequent participation in class discussions.

Eventually, during the penultimate week of the school year, we turned in our final papers.  I wrote a paper called, "Who Wants to Be a Fashion Martyr? The Nineteenth-Century American Women's Dress Reform Movement."  My professor requested that I meet with her in her office, and that I bring with me all of my research notes.  I was concerned about the implications of such a request so I called another professor with whom I was on very good terms.  I asked him pointblank if this meant I was suspected of plagiarism and he said, "Yes."  He was furious on my behalf, knowing I would never conduct myself in such a lowly fashion.  He cautioned me that this particular professor had a certain reputation that made it very likely I was in for quite a fight.  I felt betrayed.  After four months of participating in every class discussion for which I was present (alas, Crohn's kept me out of class more than I would have liked), and after having already earned decent-to-high marks on previous smaller papers for her class, now I was in the hot seat?
Remember, this was one of the last four classes of my undergraduate studies.  We were about a week away from the commencement ceremony (which, thanks to Crohn's, I did not bother to try to attend).  Dating back to Kindergarten, I had never once been accused of something as reprehensible as plagiarism.  Oh, sure, I was lazy enough to take a seat near the doorway, but I do my own work!  A friend of mine was livid, citing this as further evidence that feminists hated men and couldn't stand to see a male student actually meet their standards.  I rejected that hyperbolic interpretation of events, and I still reject it.  Feminists care a whole lot more about being respected than they care about setting up men for failure.

The day came and I met with the professor in her office as scheduled.  I walked in, feigning ignorance of any suspicions--though I doubt she believed I was that oblivious to the implications of her request.  She asked me if I had with me my research, so I opened my attache bag and presented it.  I don't have it now, but it was a stack of printouts that stood about four or five inches tall.  When approaching any paper, I came to it the way we used to work on the Future Problem Solvers team in high school.  Which is to say, I looked for articles and papers written by experts in various fields on various subjects, and trusted that I could reasonably find a way to connect each of them.  Sometimes I would find and print an article, read it and even find relevant passages, but they would eventually be cut as I pruned my work into a solid, presentable paper.  I kept all of it anyway, even the stuff that was left on the cutting room floor.

Her eyes betrayed her surprise at the sheer volume of my research.  She thumbed through several of the printed articles, noting all the highlighting, passages circled in ink and assorted handwritten notes scrawled across the margins.  Within a minute or so, she asked if I knew why she had requested the meeting.  Sticking to my charade, I shrugged it off.  She told me as diplomatically as she could that my paper "stood out."  She was surprised to see how many different sources I had cited in a paper that only ran seven pages including cover sheet and end notes (of which there were 36).

I went with "surprised" rather than "indignant" when reacting to this.  I knew I had already acquitted myself by presenting such a substantial collection of sources.  I told her that was simply how I did things, that I liked to immerse myself as much as possible in a subject.  Very quickly the conversation evolved from a trial to one of a teacher taking time to encourage a student.  She asked my post-graduation plans.  I told her that I had been discouraged from attempting to go on to grad school and become a teacher as I had intended on account of having Crohn's disease.  She objected to that, insisting I should do it anyway but I had already accepted that even if I somehow made it through grad school without Crohn's forcing enough absences to become a problem, that eventually I would find myself in the position of having to choose whether to leave 30-plus teenage kids unsupervised for an indeterminate length of time as I made a mad dash for a bathroom.  It wasn't practical, and while I still believe I would enjoy teaching and maybe even be "adequate to good" at it, I know it's not for me.  Or, at least, that I'm not for it.

My paper earned high marks, I passed her course with an A and discovered later that I was one of but nine students in my graduating class to major in history and earn cum laude or higher honors.  (I missed magna cum laude by less than 20 percentage points, thanks to taking C's in a few economics courses.)  Along the way, I was pleased to be introduced to the stories of various American women and to better acquaint myself with the narrative of womanhood in American history.  I consider it a valuable part of my holistic appreciation of the past.  I am unwavering in my conviction that women's history is, in fact, "real" history just as I am adamant that feminists are not men-hating conspirators setting traps and making frivolous federal cases out of trivial incidents.

Women have endured being second-class citizens for centuries, and it shames us all that this is still true today.  There is a perception that any woman with an inclination to punish a man can just go around crying, "Rape!" and see him brought to his knees by the justice system, a power that all women wield at all times waiting for an excuse to exercise it.  That, of course, is nonsense.  Just look at the Dominique Strauss-Khan trial to see that society at large is still very quick to rationalize and defend untoward, disrespectful and violent behavior toward women.  Think it's easy to just cry, "Rape!" and have men imprisoned at will?  Then you've apparently never heard a defense attorney say, "She asked for it by wearing those clothes or being in that room" and seen jurors nod in agreement.
Susan B. Anthony & Elizabeth Cady Stanton
I was already sensitive to these things prior to my studies; I was not "brainwashed."  After spending four years pushed and tested to hone my critical thinking skills, I am particularly resentful of anyone accusing my collegiate career of having been a brainwashing operation.  That is a baseless charge levied by ignorant, small-minded people who have no valid counterargument to the educated. We are not elitists.  Our opinions are, however, generally better informed and our arguments more sound.  For more on this, read "On Education."

I was formally educated in specific stories of various women who found the courage and conviction to challenge a system that linked their legal rights to their uterus.  I challenge anyone who remains skeptical of women's history being "real" history or believes that feminism is some kind of cabal of women determined to enslave anyone with the wrong chromosomes to actually study women's history.  Any reasonable person should very quickly empathize with their plight, and rejoice at reading of their triumphs.  You can start anywhere, but between you and me, Elizabeth Cady Stanton is well worth your time.  It would not surprise me at all to one day learn that she was part of the template for The Golden Girls.

"On Sexual Violence" may also interest readers of this post.

27 July 2011

The Louisville Palace presents James Stewart

I'd like to thank the Louisville Palace for never replying to any of my queries about this year's Classic Movie Series.  It's been going on for almost a full two weeks already and not one announcement from them via e-mail.  Anyway, here's the lineup.  I'm including the entire series for the sake of posterity, knowing full well you can't possibly go see several of these because they've already played.  All shows are (or were) at 8:00, except as noted.

15 July - You Can't Take It with You (1938)
16 July - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
22 July - Destry Rides Again (1939)
23 July - The Philadelphia Story (1940)
29 July - Rope (1948)
30 July - It's a Wonderful Life (1946) - also shows at 4:00
5 August - Harvey (1950)
6 August - Winchester '73 (1950)
12 August - The Glenn Miller Story (1954)
13 August - Rear Window (1954)
19 August - The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
20 August - Vertigo (1958)
26 August - Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
27 August - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Tickets are $5.00.  Unlike years past, there are no encore showings of movies the following afternoon so you've only got one crack at each movie (save It's a Wonderful Life).  I'd tell you whether these were 35mm prints or DVD projections...if the Palace bothered to say so on their web page or at least respond to my tweet.  Their Twitter feed is entirely one-sided; they do not appear to ever actually reply to anyone or even re-tweet anything.

I've seen a few of these for the first time in the last few months: Destry Rides Again, Harvey and Winchester '73 and I enjoyed all three.  I would highly recommend all three.  For me, the real eye-catcher is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, one of my all-time favorites.  It's currently #50/1252 on my Flickchart.  Provided all the proper stars align (guts, money, lack of other pressing events), I'm there.

Fright Night Film Festival Notes...in 3D!

This past weekend, I had free passes to see a preview screening of The Smurfs in 3D at Rave Stonybrook in Louisville.  My wife has never been able to tolerate 3D so we haven't explored the new 3D technology but we figured for free we could afford to find out whether she's amenable to the current format.  It turns out she is.  I was very pleased with the movie, which I reviewed for Flickchart.  What I didn't put into that review was that the projectionist at Stonybrook really screwed up the movie.  The first 5-10 minutes were terribly unfocused and the movie even stopped playing at one point.  Eventually, it was corrected but it was certainly a reminder of what Roger Ebert has been railing about 3D not being properly handled in most theaters.  I will say, the 3D in The Smurfs worked very well and convinced me that it can be a useful addition to the right movies.
After the screening, we were off to Fright Night Film Festival.  Because I had to have two teeth extracted a week ago, our spending budget was reduced to the $10 cash I had on me, so I didn't score any of the autographs that I had hoped to add to my meager collection.  I did, however, get to chat with Tiffany Shepis whom I found charming and very friendly.  We discussed Nightmare Man, the DVD bonus features that I shamefully still haven't watched and the guy at the adjacent table joined me in contrasting whether I was better off having missed a previous Fright Night convention with a Crohn's flare--apparently the air conditioning had gone out so that con was roasting.  We ultimately scored it a draw.  I felt bad not buying something from her after taking up a solid five minutes of her time in conversation, but what was I gonna do with $10?
Tiffany Shepis in Nightmare Man. Publicity photo.
I also managed to have a solid five minute conversation with Albert Pyun. I was unfortunately unable to attend the Friday night screening of his director's cut of Captain America (Friday at 5:00 is a horrible time to schedule a movie to start). He shared some thoughts about that movie with me, saying that in his version, there are some important themes that are better explored. For instance, it answers why the Red Skull is Italian instead of German. More importantly, though, he said that his movie is about Steve Rogers wrestling with whether or not he can live up to being Captain America. I didn't realize it, but the actor cast as Steve Rogers/Captain America is Matt Salinger, son of famed auther J.D. Salinger. Pyun noted that Salinger knew a thing or two about growing up in the shadow of a famous legacy and that this is in his performance. To what extent Salinger thought about all this at the time, of course, you'd have to ask him.

My back started hurting so I took an hour away from the con floor to sit in on a literary panel about anthologies.  I think there were more panelists than attendees.  I learned a few things.  Firstly, apparently only about 25% of submissions actually follow the guidelines of a given anthology meaning that if you just follow the rules you've got a leg up on 75% of the competition.  A story can also be rejected if it's similar in theme and tone to another story (preference is given to the story written by someone with name recognition), and a story can also be rejected if it's too good for the collection.  Homogeneity is important to an anthology.  Every editor present also emphasized how much they enjoy finding a reason to give someone their first break in the industry, and how they take pride in being the one to first take a chance on someone.

After the panel we attended a screening of Cross, which is part A-Team and part Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It's a product of the comic book/sci-fi world produced by stars Brian Austin Green and Jake Busey among others.  We saw it because it also features Troy H. King, friend of my mother-in-law.  His is a small but entertaining part as one of Michael Clarke Duncan's henchmen.  The audio mix was screwed up so it was hard to follow a lot of the dialog but having the background I have in such stories and having seen several silent movies in the last year, I didn't have too much trouble keeping up with it.  It started late for whatever reason, which pushed back subsequent events to the ire of those event enthusiasts.  As it happened, the masquerade ball and body art show were scheduled for that room.  We passed, waiting instead for the invitation only Fat Monster party.

With Daniel Logan.
No idea who the photobomber is.
Just as we were going to leave, my wife started finding friendly celebrities (many of whom I didn't even recognize so I can't say who they were).  At one point, we had two Boba Fetts: Jeremy Bulloch and Daniel Logan.  I didn't really get to talk with Mr. Bulloch, but we did spend some time trying to keep up with Daniel Logan.  That guy has to have some kind of ADHD.  He's a whirlwind of energy and I got dizzy trying to keep up with him.

What I enjoyed most about hanging out with Daniel Logan was that he doesn't even act like he knows he's a celebrity.  I honestly think he'd be the life of the party even if he was a nobody.  The guy's full of energy and seems to really enjoy being around people having a good time.  It reminded me of what it was like hanging out with my friends back before Crohn's disease put an end to my late nights.  So, thanks for the good time, Daniel Logan.

We left sometime between 1:00 and 2:00, and had a lot of fun.  I was thrilled my guts had cooperated throughout the entire day, though my hip and my back did not.

25 July 2011

Playlist: Mr. Midnight

I've thrown together several Garth Brooks playlists and mix discs over the years but I always wanted to put one together based on all the songs in his discography that take place late at night.  I originally had a playlist of 20 such songs, and I even burned that playlist to a CD and we played it in the car Saturday night.  But as Garth noted during his performance of "Friends in Low Places" in the This Is Garth Brooks! TV special, "it's then and only then that you realize...somethin's wrong."  After further tinkering, I resequenced songs and distilled it to these thirteen tracks from which I have constructed a singular narrative.  The principles in this drama are Mr. Midnight, Mr. Midnight's Ex, Cinderella, an unnamed woman, Chris LeDoux and a murdered woman.
"Mr. Midnight"
(J.R. Cobb/Buddy Buie/Tom Douglas) from the album Scarecrow

I know many disc jockeys are obnoxious, but I always wanted to be one.  I think that's why I post these playlists on my blog; I like the idea of helping structure how music is presented to people.  The song is about a DJ who takes a song request from his ex, who apparently doesn't realize he's the one taking her request.  I feel like the DJ sees himself as having a unique perspective on the relationship between the music and the listeners, and that in this song we get to be in the booth with him for a much closer look at him than the listeners ever get.  Kind of like that scene in American Graffiti where Richard Dreyfuss gets to visit with Wolfman Jack, only in this song we're Dreyfuss and Wolfman doesn't really know we're there to see his sad story.

This is our protagonist for the story, and most of his story is told in first person, mostly to us but sometimes to other characters in his drama.

"When There's No One Around"
(Tim O'Brien/Darrell Scott) from the album Sevens

Mr. Midnight's mind is wandering throughout the night.  This song is about a guy lying in bed and not being able to fall asleep, "a tape of my failures playing inside my head."  That's a curious phrase, and one that takes on a telling light if we think of it being said to us by a disc jockey.  He's fighting to sleep at four in the morning, so maybe it's his off night but I like to think that he had a breakdown after taking his ex's song request and took some time off work.

"One Night a Day"
(Gary Burr/Pete Wasner) from the album In Pieces

One of my favorite recordings in the entire Garth Brooks discography.  In high school, I got in the habit of staying up and watching The Late Show with David Letterman for laughs and then I stayed tuned for The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder for his one-on-one, audience-free interviews.  It was a very intimate show, and a great way to segue from the hustle and bustle of Letterman into the wee hours.  Garth Brooks was a guest one night, and they played a clip from this song going into or out of commercial break that mentions, "I stay up with The Late Late Show/just another way I know/to get through one night a day."  I will always think of those nights watching Tom Snyder whenever I hear this song.

Within the story I'm weaving with the songs on this playlist, this is where our narrator ("Mr. Midnight," I suppose) is trying to distract himself from the heartache of love gone wrong.  He's going to get restless, though, and go...

"Walking After Midnight"
(Alan Block/Don Hecht) from the album The Chase

I was always amused by one review I read about The Chase that proclaimed it a great showcase of Garth's songwriting because he only wrote or co-wrote six of the ten songs.  Regardless of all that, I love this song and I think it's a fine recording.  I remember going on walks around my neighborhood late at night with my friends during our teens.  This song reminds me of the serenity of those walks.  I love the change in ambient noise late at night; I don't think morning people ever know that the world sounds differently then.

In the context of the narrative constructed on this playlist, though, our guy just can't find enough distractions at home and he goes out walking, driven by his restlessness.  The song is really more about a character desperate to actually meet a lover for the first time, but I think it can also play as looking for a lost love.  Besides, if we consider our protagonist to be the disc jockey Mr. Midnight, it makes sense he would have this old song on his mind.

"It's Midnight Cinderella"
(Kent Blazy/Kim Williams/Garth Brooks) from the album Fresh Horses

Mr. Midnight introduces himself to Cinderella after witnessing her date/beau screw up with her.  She's as vulnerable as he is, it seems, and the two broken hearts seek pleasure together.

A friend of mine loathes this song.  I agree it was a poor selection to be a single; it really is not a song that could stand up to that kind of exposure.  It reminds me of the silly little kinds of songs that George Jones has recorded over the years, like "The King Is Gone."  I dig the energy of this song, and I love the cold open which is why I originally opened the playlist with this.  I think it works better this way, though, as "Midnight Sun" is more about anticipating midnight where this is specifically set then.

"Every Now and Then"
(Buddy Mondlock/Garth Brooks) from the album The Chase

Now Mr. Midnight has someone new.  His heart doesn't seem committed to Cinderella, though, and keeps wandering to the lost love.  Maybe this isn't a happy ending?

"Burning Bridges"
(Stephanie C. Brown/Garth Brooks) from the album Ropin' the Wind

No, Mr. Midnight wasn't satisfied with Cinderella, and he's gone before she gets up.  Apparently, this is a pattern of behavior.

"Which One of Them"
(Garth Brooks) from The Limited Series (1998)

Mr. Midnight is going back out to find someone else.  Instead of moving on, now we know that he's only really looking for some way of trying to recreate what he misses.  It becomes a very bleak song in the context of this narrative, I think.

"Mr. Right"
(Garth Brooks) from the album The Chase

This is how Mr. Midnight actually approaches a woman at a bar, trying to get her to leave with him.  These are the kinds of things that no one with any dignity or self-respect could ever say with a straight face.

"Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy" Chris LeDoux duet with Garth Brooks
(Garth Brooks/Mark D. Sanders) from the album Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy

Just in case the woman on the other end of "Mr. Right" is tempted, Chris steps in to make sure she really knows what she's considering.  This is one of two songs I included that aren't on any of Garth's albums or compilations. I love Garth's chuckle when Chris sings, "You'd be better off to try to rope the wind," a reference to Garth's third album (titled Ropin' the Wind).

"Fishin' in the Dark"
(Wendy Waldman/Jim Photoglo) from the collection The Lost Sessions
Originally released in The Limited Series (2005) box set

Oh, it looks like Chris LeDoux couldn't talk her out of it and now they're leaving the bar with plans to go down by the river.  I always liked the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recording of this song and Garth does a great job covering it.

"The Night Will Only Know"
(Stephanie Davis/Jenny Yates/Garth Brooks) from the album In Pieces

This may be the darkest song of the playlist.  It tells of a couple who should not have been together who witness a woman killed during the night, but do nothing to help her to protect their own secret.  Unlike the previous several songs, "The Night Will Only Know" is in third person.

What makes this interesting in the context of this playlist is the line, "Both belonging to another/but longing to be lovers/they were finally where desire dared them to go."  This suggests a familiarity not hinted at in the previous songs, but now it makes us see his corny "I'm Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now" pickup line as more of a coy in-joke that might work on a woman who knew he wasn't seriously that lame.  We can then extrapolate that she's there without the one to whom she belongs, and for whatever reason decides to give in to temptation.  This also makes "Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy" interesting, because now instead of being an "Are you sure about this?" second chance to walk away from a corny pickup line, it's like LeDoux is a mutual friend witnessing this transgression, trying to be the little angel on their shoulders.

"The Thunder Rolls" [Live Version]
(Pat Alger/Garth Brooks) from the television special This Is Garth Brooks!

Having witnessed the murder, Mr. Midnight and his lover part ways for the night.  Here, we learn that he has a woman waiting at home who knows where he's been, and in the final verse she puts an end to his wandering ways.  It may very well be that this is the same woman from "Burning Bridges," and she's had enough of him using his third shift radio job as a cover to go out having affairs.

This specific recording was from the first of Garth's TV specials, which I watched the night it aired back in 1991.  It was during this special that the public at large was first introduced to the final verse of the song, and you can hear the crowd freak out over it--just as I did, hearing it from my dad's couch.  Capitol Records issued a promotional single to radio stations in support of the TV special featuring that performance, as well as "Friends in Low Places," which introduced us to the infamous third verse of that song and in the TV special concluded with Garth smashing guitars with Ty England.  I eventually got my grubby paws on one of those promo CD singles and it's one of the crown jewels of my modest library.  You can satisfactorily substitute the live version from Double Live for your playlist.

21 July 2011

Fright Night Film Fest 2011

It's been wild to watch as Fright Night Film Fest grows with each year.  The 2011 festival begins tomorrow night at 5:00 PM (unless you've got passes that allow you to enter at 4:00) and provided all the stars align properly, I'll be going again this year, having been absent the last two years.  I've already posted a survey of the festival and my preliminary hopes and thoughts, but for the lazy who just want to finish reading this post, the guest list this time is awfully impressive: John Carpenter is the Guest of Honor and other celebrities include Henry Winkler, Michael Biehn, Linda Blair, Margot Kidder, director Fred Olen Ray and scream queen Tiffany Shepis among scores of others including Boba Fetts Jeremy Bulloch and Daniel Logan.  Films screened will include Biehn's The Victim (which he directed and will follow with a Q&A segment), Fred Olen Ray's Supershark (which he will likewise attend) and Cross (numerous minor cast members will be on hand).  Albert Pyun will be present to screen his director's cut of 1990's Captain America tomorrow at 5:00 when the doors open.

Vendors will be peddling their wares and movies will be screened the whole time.  There are several other special events, such as a VIP Celebrity Cocktail Party Saturday night at 9:00 and a Masquerade Ball at 10:00.  Also Saturday night will be a tie-in event at Georgetown Twin Drive-In.  Henry Winkler and assorted other celebrities will attend a screening of two episodes of Happy Days followed by American Graffiti, to be followed by the regular Screen 1 lineup of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  Happy Days is scheduled to begin at 9:35 PM and Transformers is scheduled to finish at 4:45 AM; $15 gets you in for the whole shebang.

I would adore seeing American Graffiti at a drive-in, but in all likelihood I'll be at the cocktail party at that time.  It's a shame, really.  Who knows?  Maybe things will go that way.  Regardless of what I get to see or who I get to meet, I intend to chronicle my experiences here.

18 July 2011

Now with Less Wisdom!

After nearly an entire week of pain, I finally had two teeth removed this afternoon.  What happened was that my bottom right wisdom tooth (tooth #32 for those who care about such designations) had grown in at an almost 45-degree angle, into the tooth before it.  That tooth had, in consequence, experienced irrevocable damage.  Ergo, they both had to be removed.  Now, you're probably wondering how it is that I had such a situation develop without my having noticed before this stage.

As it turns out, a normal person would have noticed much sooner because a normal person would not have taken so much Prednisone as I have.  In addition to (kind of) controlling the inflammation in my terminal ileum, all that Prednisone reduced the inflammation in my mouth as well.  In short, I just wasn't feeling it.  This is just one more way that Crohn's disease has screwed me, really.  Let this be a warning to those of you who have taken a lot of anti-inflammatory medication: it may be masking other problems.

Kudos to Dr. Misty Griffin at Forest Springs Family Dental, though, for a relatively painless extraction.  I won't lie: it was uncomfortable a few times.  Hey, I'm no hero.  I can admit these things.  Even that discomfort, though, paled compared with the pain of the actual problem that put me in the chair.  Now I just wish I'd stop feeling so nauseated....

12 July 2011

"Separate but Equal" Netflixes

Netflix announced new payment plans today, effective 1 September.  It will now cost $7.99 a month for unlimited streaming or unlimited, DVD rentals (one disc out at a time).  If you want streaming and discs, you pay the full $7.99 for each service: $15.98 a month.  Additional DVDs out at a time cost more, and they are keeping their Blu-ray Disc surcharge for disc renters who want Blus.  Currently, it's $2 to add Blu-ray Discs to your plan, and then an additional $1 per disc in your plan.  So if you're on the 3-DVDs-at-a-time plan, you would pay $4 a month in Blu-ray surcharges.  Unlike all previous Netflix payment plan changes, they are no longer respecting previous arrangements.  Whatever plan you have now will not be grandfathered into effect in September.

Now, I understand that the studios are making it harder on Netflix now that they've seen what a successful streaming model looks like and they think they ought to have a bigger piece of the pie.  And I'm acutely aware that Internet service providers are erecting their own barriers through bandwidth caps and efforts to block Netflix outright to some devices, prompting expensive lawsuits.  What upset me with today's announcement was the announcement itself, in which the following explanation is offered for the changes:
Last November when we launched our $7.99 unlimited streaming plan, DVDs by mail was treated as a $2 add on to our unlimited streaming plan. At the time, we didn’t anticipate offering DVD only plans. Since then we have realized that there is still a very large continuing demand for DVDs both from our existing members as well as non-members. Given the long life we think DVDs by mail will have, treating DVDs as a $2 add on to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs. Creating an unlimited DVDs by mail plan (no streaming) at our lowest price ever, $7.99, does make sense and will ensure a long life for our DVDs by mail offering. Reflecting our confidence that DVDs by mail is a long-term business for us, we are also establishing a separate and distinct management team solely focused on DVDs by mail, led by Andy Rendich, our Chief Service and Operations Officer and an 11 year veteran of Netflix.
The entire thing is predicated on the argument that leaving things as they were does not "make great financial sense!"  This is the corporate equivalent of, "My bad; I didn't realize I didn't have to settle for less than this."  In the past, a company would have had the decency to spin this kind of increase in rates by saying something like:
We regret that changes in the market have made it necessary to revise our payment plans.  Rest assured, we intend to see that every one of our valued customers gets the most value for their dollar.  Thank you for your understanding.
Would we have all seen through it and read that it really meant, "My bad; I didn't realize I didn't have to settle for less than this" anyway?  Of course we would.  But at least then we would have felt respected by their charade.  This press release sends the message that they didn't even consider us worthy of the charade.  This kind of thing smacks of a corporate policy born out of the "They'll Get Over It" doctrine.

Insulting press release language aside, the greater issue here is the creation of two "separate but equal" Netflixes.  DVD Netflix dwarfs Streaming Netflix, but Streaming Netflix has the advantage of being instant.  On the other hand, the streaming library is dictated entirely by the studios, whereas Netflix can circulate DVDs and Blu-ray Discs even when the title goes out of print.  Still, DVD Netflix customers must choose their DVDs wisely and go through the process of receiving, watching and returning.  Even if you received a DVD in the morning, watched it and returned it in time to go out with that same day's post, and even if you received the next DVD the next day, you're only getting to watch one DVD a day--and that's at best.  Figure the mail doesn't even run on Sundays and you're already down four or five DVDs a month (depending on the calendar).  That means you get--at best--25-26 DVDs.  In all likelihood, there will be a one-day turnaround between discs, meaning you're really getting 12-13 DVDs a month.  I can stream 12-13 movies in two days.

Until this, DVD Netflix and Streaming Netflix complemented one another and each compensated for the deficiencies of the other.  I could stream movies while waiting for a title not available for streaming to arrive on DVD or Blu-ray Disc.  I had access to their entire library, whether physical or digital media.  I have often defended the Watch Instantly library, arguing that there's a lot of rich film history worth exploring, as well as indie gems, that can be streamed.  I've seen movies I would never have even known about had it not been for Netflix Watch Instantly.  Case in point: just last week I streamed Aelita, a silent Russian science-fiction movie from 1924 made within three years of the October Revolution.

The message from Netflix now is that there will be three kinds of Netflix subscribers.  One will be omnivorous, paying as much as both of the others combined, for that subscriber will receive no discount.  The other subscribers will be "separate but equal."  It's this kind of "pros & cons" contrasting that ultimately leads to only one certain conclusion.  The two Netflixes may be separate, but they are only equal in price...for now.

I will not pay $15.98 a month to be a first-class citizen.  Nor will I cancel my subscription as many say they will.  I am, however, strongly considering suspending my account until such time as a more palatable payment plan is presented.

The Presidents in Comics 3: Eisenhower

The Presidents in Comic Books
Dwight David Eisenhower

Years before "I Like Ike" buttons began circulating, Dwight Eisenhower had become a popular figure in comic books, rising to fame as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during World War II.

Real Life Comics, July 1941

True Comics #23, April 1943

True Comics #43

Real Life Comics #4, September/October 1946

Superman #48, September/October 1947

Captain Marvel Adventures #110, July 1950

Picture Progress #5, January 1954
Curiously, this is the only issue I could find published while Eisenhower was President of the United States, save for three issues of Mad Magazine (#49, September 1959; #58, October, 1960 and #67, December 1961).

Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #86, July 1965
The second of three stories, "Jimmy's D-Day Adventure," features then-General Eisenhower as well as Nazi leaders Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring and Heinrich Himmler.  Written by Leo Dorfman, pencils by Curt Swan.

Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965), 1966

Dell published this one-shot issue commemorating the life of Adlai Stevenson sometime in 1966.  Also featured are Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as Admiral Chester Nimitz and Cary Estes Kefauver, Stevenson's running mate in the 1956 election (losing to Eisenhower and Richard Nixon).

Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos Annual #2, 1966

Perhaps it is telling that comic books published during his lifetime were more interested in General Eisenhower than President Eisenhower.  Lest we conclude that being the man in charge of D-Day was sufficient to earn Ike four-color immortality, a cursory look shows numerous posthumous comic book appearances.  One suspects his World War II contemporaries such as the aforementioned Admiral Nimitz have not retained their star power, so even though he is most often portrayed as a hero of World War II, we must surely recognize the influence of his time in office as president as having cemented his stature with the funny books.

08 July 2011

Playlist: Chris LeDoux at Capitol

After Garth Brooks dropped Chris LeDoux's name in his debut single "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" in 1989, the former bareback bronc-rider became a labelmate of Garth at Capitol Records.  LeDoux's sales were a scant fraction of Garth's; he has but one gold certification signifying shipment of half a million units of one album--and wouldn't you know it, but that's the album that features a duet between LeDoux and Brooks.  During his time with Capitol Records, LeDoux re-recorded many of the songs he'd been performing for decades on the rodeo circuit after he made the transition to musical entertainment.  He also recorded some new songs, not all of which came from his own pen.  Radio play was all but non-existent east of the Mississippi River which meant that you had to buy his albums and learn the material yourself rather than be spoon-fed singles.

I really liked this, actually, as it meant I went into each album without any real prejudice about which were the stronger or weaker songs.  Being a Chris LeDoux fan is pretty much the opposite of being a fan of nearly any other commercial recording artist, because there's very little "commercial" about him!  In truth, I could have thrown any 80 minutes' worth of songs together and it would be worth hearing but I focused on my personal favorites.  That said, I confess that many of these songs appear frequently on the numerous LeDoux compilations (Best of, Rodeo Rock 'n Roll Collection, 20 Greatest Hits, Anthology, Volume 1The Ultimate Collection as well as The Capitol Collection [1990-2000] box set of his first six studio albums).

"Hooked On An 8 Second Ride"
(Chris LeDoux) from the album Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy

The opening of this song makes it perfect for starting a playlist: a teasingly slow beginning, and then full throttle energy.  When I was fortunate enough to see one of his rare performances in Kentucky in 2003, he played this near the end of the show.  Opening, encore, in a box, with a fox; wherever.  I just dig this song and its "Barracuda" riffs.

"Cadillac Cowboy"
(Chuck Pyle) from the album Western Underground

This song is laid back, just kind of enjoying some time on the road between rodeos.  Not a lot of urgency to this one, which makes it a great song to play while driving.  If you pay attention to the lyrics, though, it's obvious that Chris is getting a little antsy.

"Cadillac Ranch"
(Chuck Jones/Chris Waters) from the album Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy

Not the Springsteen song!  Seemed fitting to pair with "Cadillac Cowboy."  This is a story song about a family down on its luck who save themselves by converting their failing family farm into a happening bar.  I was always a little perturbed by the list of everyone's duties, which include taking admission at the door, setting up drinks at the bar, keeping the dance floor hopping..."and Daddy kicks back with a big cigar!"  I'm sure Daddy busted his ass during the farm days, but just smoking stogies?

"Don't It Make You Want To Dance"
(Rusty Wier) from the album After the Storm

Proof that LeDoux was willing to consider songs from various aesthetics, this was an Urban Cowboy-era tune originally that he recorded at a time when mainstream country had no idea what its official view of that disco-influenced time was.  LeDoux liked the song and he makes it his own.  It's easy to conjure images of a small town barn dance with him singing this.

"Billy The Kid"
(Charlie Daniels) from the album Haywire

I could have done an entire playlist of story songs.  This one about Billy the Kid staying "a mile ahead of Garrett/and one step out of Hell" has a cool sound to it befitting the romanticized image of Billy Bonney that has been handed down since he notched those alleged kills.

"One Tonight"
(Craig Wiseman/Al Anderson) from the album One Road Man

Speaking of cool sounds, I love this one.  This one is about daring a lover to throw caution to the wind and see where the night takes the couple.  I love live-in-the-moment songs like this.

"Runaway Love"
(Michael Caruso/Dennis Matkosky/Tamara Champlin) from the album One Road Man

A little cheat on my part, as this song follows "One Tonight" to open One Road Man.  It's a terrific one-two punch and I couldn't find a reason not to retain the sequencing.  "Runaway Love" is sort of a continuation of the theme of "One Tonight," only this time it's about hitting the road and seeing how far the adventuresome couple can make it during the night.  Nice love song; great road song.

"Tougher Than The Rest"
(Bruce Springsteen)

This one is a Springsteen song!  What I love about Chris LeDoux is that he was a solid songwriter who knew what he wanted to say, but also a master interpreter of other people's lyrics.  And unlike most of his contemporaries in mainstream country at the time, he knew how to take a song outside his musical aesthetics and make it fit what he did.  Too often, we hear country artists try to make themselves fit a pop or rock song instead of finding a way that the song can fit them.

"County Fair"
(Chris LeDoux) from the album Western Underground

This might be my favorite Chris LeDoux song, actually.  I absolutely love it.  The premise is simple enough: he's had a hard day at work and is excited to go to the county fair where he hopes to find some romance.  Anyone who was an adolescent or young adult in a small community knows this excitement.  Who doesn't enjoy laughing for several minutes on the Scrambler, using it as an excuse to get close to someone?

"Pass My Hat" duet with Jo-El Sonnier
(Doug Kershaw) from the album Horsepower

What could be more fun than pairing a rodeo cowboy with an accordion-playing Cajun?  LeDoux and Sonnier trade verses in English and French, respectively about a young man who knows he's overstayed his welcome at his sweetheart's family dinner table.  Fun stuff.

"Bang A Drum" duet with Jon Bon Jovi
(Jon Bon Jovi) from the album One Road Man

Name anyone else who has recorded a duet with both Jo-El Sonnier and Jon Bon Jovi!  LeDoux's son introduced him to "Bang a Drum," which he found himself loving enough that he contacted Bon Jovi to find out if he'd participate in a duet version.  Bon Jovi agreed, on the basis that it also have a music video.  The result is an entirely unexpected gem.

"Workin' Man's Dollar"
(Chris LeDoux) from the album Western Underground

Some might find this one a little too "Norman Rockwell," but there's an earnestness here that I think makes it work.  This one is about how money circulated among the working class is different from white collar money, and describes some of the hands through which a hypothetical dollar bill would pass.  Simplistic, sure, but quite vivid.

"The Borderline"
(Teddy Gentry/Greg Fowler/Larry Hanson/Virgil Beckham) from the album One Road Man

Another story song, this one is about a lawman and a cowboy who partner to pursue a gang of criminals into Mexico.  "The lawman wanted justice/the cowboy needs revenge," we're told.  Classic Old West storytelling.  If you listen, you can hear a gut string guitar played by Willie Nelson.

"Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy" duet with Garth Brooks
(Garth Brooks/Mark D. Sanders) from the album Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy

A rather humorous cautionary tale warning women (ostensibly uptown women) against dabbling with a cowboy.  He might be fun tonight, but Chris and Garth ask you to consider what you'll do "when he don't saddle up and ride away."  Great karaoke song if you're in a honky tonk and have a willing buddy (or three).

"Rodeo Moon"
(Toby Keith/Chris LeDoux) from the album Horsepower

"Rodeo Moon" looks back on the early, lean years of marriage between a rodeo cowboy and his wife.  The theme of the song is how love got them through some rough times.  There's an endearing sweetness to this song that makes it accessible even to those of us who've never been to, much less in, a rodeo.

"Riding For A Fall"
(Chris LeDoux) from the album Western Underground

For those who found "Rodeo Moon"'s endorsement of the married life too saccharine, there's "Riding for a Fall."  Here, Chris addresses an unnamed cowboy who thinks he's doing just fine without a woman in his life, making the case for companionship.  There's nothing wrong with being emotionally independent, but there's nothing wise about going it alone just to prove a point, either.

"Bareback Jack"
(Chris LeDoux) from the album After the Storm

This one is for those who found "Riding for a Fall" too subtle.  "Bareback Jack" is a song sung in first-person about a young man so obsessed with being a rodeo cowboy that he says it'll take being crippled to slow him down.  It's a celebration of the stubbornness of the rodeo culture, but should suffice as an allegory for the rest of us who know we can be single-minded and defiant at times.

"Silence On The Line"
(Sterling L. Whipple) from the album Cowboy

This is another story song, and a bittersweet follow-up to "Bareback Jack."  Our protagonist here is calling home to tell his wife that there's a rodeo buddy whose career has been ended by injury, and he'd like her to make him welcome at their home.  She resists, pointing out what kind of burden he would be to their home.  This is very much a song about humility, and it's very moving.  LeDoux doesn't force the emotion, instead letting the song evoke a response on its own.

"Copenhagen" with Toby Keith
(Chris LeDoux) from the compilation album Rodeo Rock and Roll Collection

An endorsement of chewing tobacco that pokes some fun at its users and then ventures into the realm of hyperbole (take note of what it "cures").  "Copenhagen" is pure fun, and it's hard to tell whether it's LeDoux or Toby Keith who enjoys this cut more.  Note: this is the only non-Christmas song recorded by LeDoux at Capitol records between 1990 and 2000 that is not included in The Capitol Collection (1990-2000) box set.

"Under This Old Hat"
(Mike Anthony/Larry Cordle) from the album Under This Old Hat

Our protagonist is older now, reminding his lover (wife is implied) that his adoration of her hasn't diminished with time.  LeDoux could make these kinds of songs work because his own marriage had withstood the test of time and by all accounts he and his wife were still very much in love with one another throughout.

"This Cowboy's Hat"
(Jake Brooks) from the album Western Underground

The final act in our "hat" trilogy, and the last story song of the playlist.  "This Cowboy's Hat" describes an altercation in a bar where some bikers get it into their heads that they ought to pick on the cowboy for his attire.  He regales them--us, really--with the story of the hat and how personal an item it is.  Throughout the song there's a genuine tension (bolstered by the music behind LeDoux's vocals, including some aggressive percussion), and ultimately a message about how different groups of people can--and should--still be able to respect one another.

"Life Is A Highway"
(Tom Cochrane) from the album One Road Man

One last outside-the-box cover song, but this one might just be the perfect microcosm for the Chris LeDoux discography, as well as his outlook on life.  Between his years in the rodeo life and then as a stage performer, LeDoux was no stranger to the highway, and he was driven by an optimistic enthusiasm for exploring life.  I almost ended with "One Less Tornado" from his final album, and briefly considered closing with Garth Brooks's tribute song "Good Ride Cowboy," but this just felt more appropriate.

07 July 2011

The Bride Wore A Smile

You may recall I recently shared the story of young Beth Dobson, a Crohnie in the United Kingdom whose condition is so advanced it will certainly kill her unless a radical new--and life-endangering--treatment succeeds.  Miss Dobson wasn't properly diagnosed until age 11 and is only now 20.  Before taking chemotherapy to eradicate her immune system (in anticipation for which she has already shaved her head), though, she was hellbent on marrying the young man she loves, Ian Townsend.  She hasn't had much go her way in life, but Miss Dobson is now Mrs. Townsend.

I can't say exactly why her story has resonated so strongly with me.  On a selfish note, I have a vested interest in knowing whether the treatment she's about to undergo will prove itself viable for me down the road.  I've "met" numerous Crohnies via the Internet, but not Mrs. Townsend so there's not even been any direct contact with her to personalize her story.

It breaks my heart to think of anyone young with this god-awful disease.  I at least got to make it through high school and my associate's degree before Crohn's became an issue for me.  In my early adulthood I was able to travel to Chicago several times, Las Vegas and even Barbados.  In 2001 and in 2002, I spent an entire week with a friend going around the country catching a baseball game in a different city each night.  I stayed up way too late with friends or coworkers, eating whatever I pleased, sometimes drinking whatever I pleased.  I've enjoyed flaking out in a hammock with a cigar.  I know what it's like to have a couple of beers at a crowded ballpark, with some nachos and a hot dog with sauerkraut and not think twice about it.  I stood in line literally for hours with my friends and my brother to get Garth Brooks concert tickets.  I camped outside a local Cinemark movie theater with friends and hundreds of other geeks to get tickets to see Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.

Beth Townsend never had a chance to do any of those things.  Granted, I suspect she may not even want to do many of them, but that's not the point.  When I read that all she wanted going into this treatment was to have the chance to exchange vows with the man she loved, it reminded me how special my own wedding was.  I wasn't even sure I was going to feel well enough to leave the apartment that day, but thankfully I was.  The ceremony went swimmingly and my wife and I both enjoyed the reception.  So far as we know, our guests--all family and friends close enough they may as well be family--shared in our enjoyment of the entire affair.  Every ceremony and reception is unique, and yet they're almost all part of a universal experience.  I wish that experience for everyone who wants it for themselves, which is part of why I'm such an ardent supporter of marriage equality.

What awaits Beth Townsend, of course, remains to be seen but it warmed my heart to see the wedding photos published online.  At least this is one experience she deserved.  I hope it's the first of many yet to come.

06 July 2011

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon"

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Starring: Shia LaBeof, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Patrick Dempsey, Kevin Dunn, Julie White with John Malkovich and Frances McDormand
Written by Ehren Kruger
Directed by Michael Bay
Theatrical Release Date: 28 June 2011
Date of Screening: 1 July 2011

Look, I'm a "G1" fan, meaning I've been into Transformers since the first generation of toys, comics and cartoons more than a quarter century ago.  I haven't kept up with the various incarnations so my knowledge of the mythology isn't nearly as extensive as many fans, but I have my ideas of the themes and the principle characters.

When I pay to go see a Transformers movie, I'm really only expecting one thing: lots of robot-on-robot violence.  Some would have me believe I'm guilty of critical thinking heresy with such low standards.  What am I supposed to do?  Enter the theater expecting a thesis on the existence of God in an homage to works of Ingmar Bergman?  I could do that, but what am I supposed to do when that's not the movie I get?

In Dark of the Moon, we learn that the Ark (an Autobot ship) left Cybertron at a critical point in the war between the Autobots and Decepticons and was believed destroyed.  Instead, it crashed on Earth's moon and was the real subject of our lunar missions in the 1960s.  Today, this secret project has come to light and led the Autobots to search the Ark where they discover famed leader Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) and the space bridge technology he invented that was supposed to turn the tide of the war.  Once revived by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), Sentinel attracts the attention of the Decepticons who intend to make use of Sentinel and his space bridge in their plans for conquest.  Amid all this, Sam (LaBeof) discovers a human/Decepticon alliance.

Personally, I enjoyed the story this time.  For starters, I'm a sucker for plots that connect the dots with real, historical events (though, strangely, I have yet to see The Da Vinci Code and have no real desire to see it), and space exploration interests me enough that I got into the opening act of the film.  Having Sentinel Prime voiced by Leonard Nimoy appealed to me on a personal level; I knew him as Galvatron from 1986's The Transformers: The Movie before I knew him as Spock.

Moreover, I really liked the subplot of the human/Decepticon alliance.  Often in science-fiction stories, we see mankind uniting once confronted by an alien race.  I love those kinds of stories, but I confess I found this approach more honest.  The politics of Dark of the Moon are somewhat confusing.  Much is made of Sam having received a medal from President Barack Obama, but is later put down by others in the movie.  Former Sector 7 agent Simmons (Turtorro) is interviewed on TV by Bill O'Reilly, who calls him a "pinhead" and argues that many believe we'd all be safer if the Autobots were to leave Earth.  At first glance, we liberals take it on the chin but in retrospect it seems that the Autobots debunk O'Reilly's apprehensive xenophobia.  An allegory for immigration?  Maybe.  The point is, Dark of the Moon recognizes that we have competing motives and objectives and that these would react differently to the presence of Autobots and Decepticons.
The pace was fairly taut, the action sequences were terrific and despite what reviewers have said about Rosie Huntington-Whitely as Carly, I found her perfectly fine in this film.  The role asked her to look pretty and appear in over her head; she nailed both parts.  It wasn't a mind-blowing performance, but it wasn't atrocious, either.

I keep encountering in online reviews remarks about how this film "makes no sense."  This is always a derisive scorn, as though the plot is so convoluted that nothing is explained by anything else within the film.  I just want to know whether those people were even bothering to pay attention, and more importantly how they feel about effectively admitting their observational skills are so poor they got lost by a Transformers movie.  It's a very straightforward story, really.  The first half sees different factions following their investigations until they reach the point in the story where the enemy plot is revealed and then it's a matter of combat.  I find it hard to believe that anyone over the age of nine would honestly not understand this film.  Find it simplistic, sure, but not making sense?  Hardly.

Even Roger Ebert seems to miss some clearly-explained points in his recent blog post about the film, in which he uses the series as a pretext for questioning Intelligent Design and Creationism:
I raise the subject of Creationism because it opens the door to Intelligent Design, which I will require to explain the existence of Autobots. Do you know what an Autobot looks like? At first appearance they're mild-mannered motor vehicles. They are suddenly capable of unfolding and expanding into gigantic humanoid robots whose size seems optional, since sometimes they can bend over and look a human in the eye, and at other times they are hundreds of feet tall. One might wonder how they pack so much metallic mass into an area the size of a Camaro, and well one might.
They seem to consist mostly of auto parts: Fenders, bumpers, grills, hoods, trunks, windshields, and sometimes large tractor tires as shoulders. These parts expand as needed according to scale. They seem to be entirely made of metal, although in this movie an old Autobot has grown a beard, and when another opens its jaws we can clearly see a strand of saliva, which I assume is Pennzoil.
It's made perfectly clear in the first film that the Transformers are shape-shifters capable of adopting any design they scan, and it's clear there is a varying size scale.  Optimus Prime is clearly larger than the other Autobots, comparable to Megatron and smaller than some of the other Decepticons.  I don't recall any glaring instances of Transformer sizes being inconsistent.  Perhaps Mr. Ebert mistakenly thought they were all the same size?  I don't expect a reviewer of Ebert's vintage to see a film like this as anything but a glorified toy commercial, but it does seem a bit embarrassing that he would miss a plot point like that which is 1) explicitly answered on screen and 2) fairly trivial to the story.  It just seems petty to get hung up on a detail like how the Transformers know about human cars.

There's some fat to be trimmed, yes, but much less than the previous two films.  Personally, I think the biggest blunder was how they handled the departure of Megan Fox from the series.  We're told she simply "dumped" Sam after Revenge of the Fallen, with no further explanation.  I think it would have been far more effective had Sam explained to us that they just had a hard time adapting to regular life after having shared those extraordinary experiences with the Transformers.  This could have easily been incorporated into the new romance subplot by giving Sam a motive for not fully committing to Carly.

If you've already passed judgment on these movies or Transformers in general, save your money.  There's nothing here that will redeem the mythology for you.  You'll only feel smugly justified in whining about wasting 157 minutes of your life.  If you care that much about having a ticket stub to justify whining about wasting 2 1/2 hours of your life on a movie you didn't expect to like in the first place, you need some perspective on life, 'cause it's way too short to squander on experiences you know won't please you.

If on the other hand, you're capable of following a simple story and enjoy robot-on-robot violence, then I think there's a strong chance you'll share my belief that this is easily the most enjoyable of the three live action films.