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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 8, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Thermometers, Barbershop II, and Lost in Translation

You look out the window, the sun is shining. It looks like a bright, wonderful morning. So you put on comfortable, lightweight clothing, step outside the door, and ...

Freeze.

Sure, I could put on a bathrobe, go downstairs, step outside the door, find out how cold (or hot) it is, and then go back upstairs to dress.

Or I could turn on the television.

Or I could open a window ... if they still work, since, as air-conditioning addicts, we never open them from one year to the next.

I admit I'm lazy. I also don't have the patience to watch the Weather Channel for however many minutes it takes before they splash the local temperature.

So I put up an outdoor thermometer a few years ago. And discovered that the kind with the swinging arrow was, to put it kindly, unreliable.

Thinking it was just that thermometer, I went to Lowe's and Home Depot and discovered that in all their displays of analog thermometers, no two of them showed the same temperature, and the range was as much as ten degrees.

Now, I knew about digital indoor-outdoor thermometers, but they all required that you run a cable out through a window -- and then you had to find a shady spot for the sensor. We don't have windows conveniently close to shade.

So I bought a couple of wireless digital thermometers, the kind where you put a sensor outside, which transmits its information via radio waves to an indoor receiver, which displays the outside temperature and the inside temperature.

We set it up with one display upstairs, and the other downstairs, so we could be lazy on either floor.

It worked great in the summer, though I had to be careful where I put the indoor receivers, since they couldn't be too far from the signal source.

In the winter, though, the signals kept cutting out.

OK, smart guys, you knew that most batteries stop working when it gets too cold, but I didn't know that, and nothing in the documentation told me to get the right kind of battery.

Anyway, this year I gave up. I went back to Lowe's and Home Depot and found nary a wireless indoor-outdoor thermometer. A fellow at Home Depot told us they had them in at Christmas but had sold out completely. Maybe they'd be reordered.

And maybe I wanted one now.

So I did what I should have done in the first place: I went to Radio Shack.

They had several models, the difference mainly being the size of the readout on the indoor unit.

Here's an oddity, though. They sell extra sensors, but not extra receivers.

Which means that you can set up a system that tells you the temperature in the garage, in the back yard, in the front yard, and on the roof, if you want ... but you can't set it up with a single sensor and two separate indoor readouts.

I guess there are a lot of people for whom the temperature differential between the back yard and the front yard is crucial, but we're the only ones who ever wanted to have the same digital readout in two different parts of the house.

The solution was to buy two systems, and then use only one sensor, which is what I did.

First of all, the Radio Shack instructions stressed the importance of buying a certain kind of battery for really cold weather. Which I did, and now we can actually read the temperature when it's below twenty degrees, which it has been several times this winter.

Second, the signal is twice as strong (or the receivers twice as sensitive) as the old one, so we had more freedom about where we could place the receivers.

Now the system works great.

*

We saw the first Barbershop movie and loved it, so Barbershop II felt like coming home. We already knew and liked the characters, and the ambience, the sense of community, was as enjoyable as before.

In addition, we got a few scenes in the beauty shop next door, with Queen Latifah at her sassy and glorious best. In effect, these scenes were an embedded promo for her upcoming Beauty Shop movie -- which we intend to see, of course.

Unfortunately, though, within the context of Barbershop II, the beauty shop vignettes never even rose to the level of a subplot. They did no harm, but they did not advance the story.

Indeed, if you come looking for a coherent story, you'll be disappointed. There's a save-the-neighborhood plot, but the issues are never made particularly clear; and (without giving things away) it's never explained why the outcome of the vote at a city government meeting seems to have been very important -- except that it had no consequences as far as we could see. Were people still being forced out of their homes or not?

Other subplots were equally vague about what was at stake. Lots of flashbacks to Cedric the Entertainer's early years ... they did explain why he has his chair rent-free, but the love story never rose to the level of comprehensibility. His long-lost love ... why was she lost? What does it mean if she comes back?

In other words, the acting is as good as ever, the feel of it is great, but the writing felt slapped-together, as if nobody thought the movie's structure actually mattered.

So if you haven't seen either Barbershop movie, don't start with this one. Rent the first -- which is worth owning! -- and then you'll enjoy coming back to South Side Chicago for a dose of this shop that's at the heart of a real black community, rather than the standard view of hookers and drug dealers that is usually shown in movies.

*

Lost in Translation came out on DVD while it was still in the theaters, enjoying its little Oscar boost.

If you ever wanted to visit Japan, this movie will cure you. It makes a week in Tokyo seem like a year in hell.

This is definitely an independent movie. It's called a comedy, and there are funny moments -- mostly when Bill Murray gets to ad lib charmingly -- but most of it moves at a glacial pace through bleak scenes of people being shallow and boring, while we see an alienated man and an alienated woman being alienated.

There are people who will laugh all through this movie at the contemptibility of human life. But I don't like those people.

This is pure undergraduate filmmaking -- as so many independent movies are -- in which a general air of superiority and ennui is meant to be taken for intelligence and deep insights. I've seen enough of these (and enough of this kind of storytelling) to know that what we're really seeing is the filmmaker's soul.

The people of Japan aren't shallow. Writer/director Sofia Coppola is. If she went to Japan and this is all she saw, then shame on her.

So Bill Murray's and Scarlett Johansson's excellent performances are almost (though not entirely) wasted on a story that pretends to be wise, but in fact is faux cool.

Still ... those performances. Scarlett Johansson is obviously playing a part that stands in for Sofia Coppola herself, only unlike Coppola, Johansson seems to be alive inside the silent inarticulateness of the character. (Honestly: At the Golden Globes, didn't it seem like Sofia Coppola's acceptance speech was delivered by a hand puppet?)

And Bill Murray -- a performer who has irritated me ever since his Saturday Night Live days -- gives the second finest performance of his checkered career.

The finest, which we saw only a few days before, was Groundhog Day -- a movie that proves if you have a good enough script, director, and leading man, you can cast a dead girl in the lead and still make a great romantic comedy.

Murray and Johansson are so good that even though the movie sneers at every other person, the experience of watching the film is still enjoyable and I'm glad I saw their performances.

The fact that Lost in Translation is nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and Coppola herself is nominated as writer (of what, actually?) and director, merely affirms that the Academy still can't tell the difference between substance and affectation.


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