This one comes courtesy of an author who has already written two books on Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Story of Their Friendship (which I've read) and Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings (which I have not), and who has appeared in the documentary Ringers and apparently provided commentary on one of the versions of the Lord of the Rings DVDs. The format of this book is much more casual than his other writing about Tolkien, and although it likely covers much of the same ground (I recognized much of the biographical information from the Durin book I read and another book about Tolkien's World War I experiences, John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth), it does so in a fun-to-read, encyclopedia-like format of short articles and side-bars, organized under general topic headings like "Places, Real and Imagined," "Languages and Names, Real and Invented," "The Tolkien Phenomenon" and "J.R.R. Tolkien's Faith."
A half-dozen articles will fall under each of those headings, and I doubt any is more than 500 words or so. That, paired with the small stature of the book—short like a Hobbit, slim like an Elf—make it an ideal book to carry around for lunch breaks, doctor's office waits and the like. As I said, much of the biographical information was stuff I already knew, as was some of the religious and personal life stuff, but Duriez provides clear, concise explanations and summaries of Tolkien's often complex mythologies and their real-world origins, and I enjoyed reading about Tolkien's scholarly work.
What attracted me to the book more than anything, though, was Lucy Davey's perfect cover, which boils several locales from Middle-Earth into their simplest form, and squishes them all together into a single, striking image that visually sums up the settings of Tolkien's best-known works, which are, above all else, about moving across and through those settings. A lot of great artists have devoted a lot of considerable skill to rendering and adapting the colorful characters and dramatic events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings into illustrations for book covers, posters and calendars over the years but, in all honesty, I think this is my favorite of such images, and certainly the only one I could imagine hanging a print of on a wall in my apartment.
This is a very good book, and a very great book cover.
Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign In Verse by Calvin Trillin (Random House; 2012): Reliving the just-finished presidential campaign, from 2008 to Election Night, probably isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time at this particular point, but Trillin makes a strong case for doing just that in his Dogfight.
Trillin condenses the campaign into a single epic poem told in rhyming couplets, just as he did in 2008’s Deciding The Next Decider, resulting in something akin to Homer writing for Newsweek, plus jokes.
Trillin’s wordplay is always a delight, never more so when he was to reach so far to find a rhyme that one wonders if he hurt himself in the process. When his couplets are good they are good, and when they are bad they’re excellent.
There are a lot of sidebar-like bits of standalone verse, often set to the tune of old songs I’m not familiar with, covering supporting characters or particular events in the quadrennial national psychodrama that is our presidential elections: “I Thought That I Would Never See a Pol Who Loved the Height of Trees” on Romney’s “The trees are the right height” comment; “We Pick Rick”, a song about Rick Santorum sung to the tune of “We Like Ike”; “We Don’t Like It Because It’s His: A Republican Sea Shanty” and so on.
The best of these is probably a short prose piece, the title of which tells the joke all by itself: “Callista Gingrich, Aware That Her Husband Has Cheated On and Then Left Two Wives Who Had Serious Illnesses, Tries Desperately to Make Light of a Bad Cough.”
Despite their considerable virtues of these pieces, they do somewhat distract from the momentum of the election battle, so it can be difficult to read the narrative without doing so in fits in starts. Even passing over these asides to return to them afterward or during chapter breaks requires a bit of mental hurdle-jumping and physical page-flipping, which alone can break the momentum.
I’m not sure if there is a way around that, though; it would be a shame if they weren’t in the book, and it wouldn’t read quite right if they were all collected in the back, and thus removed from the context of the campaign chronology, either.
As for the title, it comes from the two disappointing dog-related anecdotes that hounded each man and which detractors of each could seize on as powerful emblematic examples of what they feared about each of them.
Mitt Romney once accidentally left his dog Seamus in a cage atop his car, and tried to make light of it (revealing the clueless, careless, inhumane elitist who isn’t concerned about, or even necessarily cognizant of, those somehow beneath him). And Barack Obama, for his part, once ate dog meat as a boy when he was in Indonesia (Why was Barack Obama in such an exotic, faraway land where Islam is a more prominent religion than it is in the United States, and animals other than cows, chickens and pigs are consumed?!).
As Trillin puts it in his introduction:
Though dog lovers wouldn’t be either man’s base,
A dogfight seemed what was in store for their race.
And people were saying, “We wonder which dude’ll
Emerge as the pit bull, and which as the poodle.”
Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan (Scribner; 2012): A contributor to The Economist, Nature, National Geographic and a handful of other reputable magazines you’ve surely heard of even if you haven’t read them, Kaplan is a science journalist by trade.
In this book, he takes that training to the always fascinating subject of monsters, mainly the more popular of those of classic mythology, the Medieval menagerie and/or movies.
He tries valiantly—in a few cases, for a few paragraphs, perhaps too valiantly—to figure out where particular monsters might have come from, what human fears they serve as projections of and what they might be made of, a goal visually laid out by artist Anthony Kulig’s wonderful cover image of a dragon with various layers peeled from it and the overall winning book cover design by Rex Bononmelli (Great job guys; it was the cover that caught my eye from 15 feet away or so and drew me in to read the title and sub-title and realize this was a book I would be eminently interested in).
And it was a pretty rewarding read, one that I freely admit as a writer fired my imagination repeatedly as I read. I didn’t learn of any new monsters, and some of the theories Kaplan offers regarding their origins—the vampires and zombies and werewolves especially; so too aliens—are ones I’ve seen presented before. But never couched in explorations of so many other monsters in a book-length discussion.
Kaplan organizes monsters into families for the purpose of chapters. For example, the first chapter is “Giant Animals” and concerns the Nemean Lion, Calydonian Boar and the Rukh; the second is “Beastly Blends” and discusses Chimera, Griffon, Cockatrice and so on. They are arranged roughly chronologically, so we begin with ancient Greek myth and progress through the present, with “The Created” (The Golem, Frankenstein, HAL 9000 and Terminator), “Terror Resurrected” (Dinosaurs…mostly those from Jurassic Park) and “Extraterrestrial Threat” (Aliens…mostly those from the Alien/s movies).
Kaplan keeps his mind quite open, beginning with the possibility that some of the monsters might have been real…or at least discussing the possibility of how likely such a reality might have been.
So in the first chapter he discusses how common gigantism might be among certain animals, or what factors might have lead someone to believe that the lion attacking them was giant or invincible, and so on.
As I said, sometimes he seems a little generous here, a thought that first occurred to me when he was trying to figure out where Chimera might have come from. The possibilities he comes up with, including finding a mess of bones from multiple animals in a tar pit and the rather comical, O.J. Simpson-at-the-beginning-of-Naked Gun image of a single ancient Greek being attacked by first a lion, then a goat and then a snake in rapid succession on the same dark night, but, as I think someone might have told Sigmund Freud at some point, sometimes a fire-breathing lion with a goat's head growing out of its back and a snake for a tail and maybe bat-wings too is just a fire-breathing lion with a goat’s head growing out of its back and a snake for a tail and maybe bat-wings too. Now quit doing that with your cigar; you’re making me uncomfortable.
Kaplan’s background in magazine writing is evident in his book. He’s economic in his writing (something I wish I was much better at), and covers a great deal of ground quite thoroughly (about 30 “name” monsters are given a decent degree of discussion) in a little over 200 pages. The tone is serious, sober, maybe even a little scholarly, but not forbiddingly so, and the subject matter does guarantee a certain degree of lightness. It’s eminently readable, and has an almost-breezy quality to it. (I generally have a hard time finding time to read much prose, given how much of my reading time my critic’s jobs require I spend on comics, but I made it through this in a matter of a couple of sittings).
If you’re interested in the subject matter of monsters (and who isn’t?), I can’t recommend this highly enough. Or maybe I can; that last sentence is a pretty high recommendation, capable of convincing most folks interested in monsters to check this out, right?
Unexplained!: Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences and Puzzling Physical Phenomena by Jerome Clark (Visible Ink; 2013): This is a big, hefty volume covering a full range of cryptozoology, UFOlogy, controversial Is it for real? phenomena, historical mysteries and other aspects of Fortenalia, by the author of the incredibly readable UFO Encyclopedia, which I believe I’ve mentioned here on several occasions as a good place to read more about such subjects as Mothman and, more recently, two of the well-documented UFO encounters recounted in James Renner’s It Came From Ohio.
This volume is obviously a lot less focused than the UFO Encyclopedia, overlapping the material in only a few notable places (The one that stands out, for me, is an extremely colorful story set in Ohio in which a trucker sees a spectacular UFO event, goes to a diner and has a Men In Black encounter, and is later chased by a little devil man on some sort of flying contraption). But like the Encyclopedia, it is broken up into articles, each several pages in length, and it a very solid overview of the subject, with plenty of sources always clearly listed for further investigation.
The book is broken into three broad sections, getting gradually further and further removed from (potential) reality, and then there are subjects covered alphabetically within each category.
The first of these is “Mysteries,” where one will find articles on strange falls, hairy dwarves, hairy bipeds, living dinosaurs, lake monsters, thunderbirds and so on. Next is “Curiosities,” which includes chapters on the Jersey Devil, phantom kangaroos in the U.S., “mad gassers” and merbeings. And then, finally, are “Fables,” which feature similar subjects that have been more or less completely debunked: The Cottingley fairy photos, the disappearance of Flight 19 and the Bermuda Triangle, the occasional discoveries of evidence of the historical Noah’s Ark and so on.
This is the third edition of the book, and, as even that rudimentary listing of a few of the 65 articles within no doubt indicates to regular readers of this sort of writing suggests, much of the subject matter is rather well-trod, and many of the anecdotes will be familiar to interested parties who have read many books (or watched many documentaries and “documentaries”) on these subjects.
What Clark brings to these subjects is a nice, browse-able format that makes this a perfect volume for leafing through and reading bit by bit here and there (I’ve found it an invaluable companion for waiting rooms, long baths and occasions when I find myself dining alone in restaurants), and a fine starting point for reading more on these subjects, one that clearly points to where to head next.
Clark’s voice and tone is quite engaging as well, and he strikes what I would consider a perfect balance between credulousness and skepticism. Nothing is dismissed outright and few if any witnesses are ever insulted (in fact, as he repeatedly notes, often times efforts to reflexively explain away the mysterious tend to be even more fantastical than the suggestions of, say, monsters or extra-terrestrial vehicles). But, at the same time, one doesn’t detect the least bit of desperate hope on Clark’s part either.
So on the subject of Bigfoot, for example, Clark comes across neither as an ardent believer nor a debunker—he’s not on anyone’s “side” so much as he’s simply chronicling what information there is, and the reality his book seems most concerned with is “experiential.” Are there pterosaurs in Africa, or hairy humanoids in every corner of the continental United States? People seem to see them, and tell stories about them.
As often-told as many of these stories are—some by Clark himself in his other work—I found new information about old stories, like the 12th century sighting of the Green Children and Australia’s answer to Bigfoot, The Yowie (which one witness described as like Chewbacca from Star Wars, a comparison one never, ever hears, but which is apparently more applicable to the taller, lankier Yowie than our continent’s stockier species).
I had also never heard of “Belled Buzzards”—which are just what they sound like, buzzards with bells around their necks—which is apparently a popular urb—er, rural legend in and around my part of the country.
As a non-fiction writer, I found it a fine example of how to approach some of these outré subjects in an even and engaging way. As a (would-be) writer of fiction, I found it full of anecdotes to fire the imagination. And as a reader, particular a reader of such unexplained phenomena, I found it a perfect companion over the last few weeks.
Game Change: Obama and The Clintons, McCain and Palin and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin: Don’t ask me why I decided to start listening to an audiobook about the 2008 presidential campaign between the conclusion of the 2012 one and the President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
Part of it may have had to do with a desire to get a behind-the-scenes look at the election that had just ended and, finding none available, I went back four years to the next closest thing. Part of it may have had to do with disappointment in Obama’s performance in his second run for president and the Republicans’ limp, barely-there efforts to challenge him—the last time Obama ran for president, it was the most exciting political epic of my lifetime, but the most fun part of 2012 was seeing the strange things Mitt Romney might say in a very strange way on a daily basis.
I know at least a little bit of it had to do with seeing the cover for the DVD version of the HBO film based on the book, and wondering why the losing side was on it, and the undercard of the losing side was the one who was front and center. If you look at the cover of the DVD, Game Change seems like it was turned into a Sarah Palin biopic, whereas the book itself promises a very different story (I've since seen the DVD, and written about it below).
Everything in these sorts of political tell-alls should always be taken with a grain of salt, as despite the fact that the authors promise quite vehemently that everything is firsthand sourced and verified, many of those sources have post-election axes to grind, and even if all of the facts are objectively true, they can be colored by their score-settling tellings (In that respect, the McCain and Palin camps stories promised to be the most juicy, as those campaigns ended more finally than either the Clinton or the Obama campaigns, and there would have been less worry of any fallout following bridge-burning).
That said, this is a pretty fascinating read (well, in my case, listen), re-telling the entirety of the 2008 campaign from the behind-the-scenes view; all of the little outrages and victories and jockeying for news cycle winning and narrative shaping are relived, but here we don't get the filter of the mass media or the public spin of the campaigns, but the inside look at how the various campaigns perceived them and what they were trying to accomplish.
The book is divided into two sections. The first on the Democratic primary, beginning as Hilary Clinton's unopposed, inevitable ascension to nominee, then becoming a three-way race with Obama and John Edwards, and then becoming a a two-way race between Obama and Clinton (and her husband) that was actually a much more thrilling, bitter and harder-fought contest than the general election.
The second rushes through the sad Republican primary that McCain won practically by default, and the general election, which the Republicans seemed to be in a state of constant losing, save for a few brief moments (The McCain camp's brief success with framing Obama as a lightweight political celebrity, and the bounce they achieved when they got their own, actual lightweight political celebrity in Sarah Palin).
Some random thoughts:
—The Clintons and the McCain camp constantly complained that the media was in the tank for Obama, and while I don't believe in a liberal bias in the news media, whether or not more folks who work in the media tend to be more personally politically liberal than conservative, there's really no doubt they wanted Obama to win. Obama was the best story, and his victory would have been the best story, and that, more than anything, is the media's true bias—for the best story (And "best" can, of course, often be defined as the "best-selling story").
Additionally, it becomes quite clear how horribly exhausting The Clintons and McCains are, and I imagine any long-time political reporters would have been dreading the prospect of having to pay even more attention to those characters for even longer, as opposed to Obama. And his newness and freshness meant there was simply a lot less to criticize or dredge up. He might not have just walked out of the woods like Kaspar Hauser, but he might as well have when one compares him to the decades-long careers of Clinton or McCain (I suppose that's why so much criticism of Obama's "past" revolves around his childhood and formative years, and those of his parents and older people he's crossed paths with, rather than his professional record).
—Both Clintons and both John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth come across as complete psychopaths at several points in the narrative. I imagine much of the Elizabeth stuff might be the most suspect, as it sounds exactly like the sort of trash talked by aggrieved staffers and former employees, but, at the same time, it is in such sharp contrast to everything else one hears about Elizabeth Edwards that it's attention-grabbing, and its rarity lends it an air of believability.
—Obama emerges an even more admirable figure than one might have thought prior to reading/listening to this book. There's a scene where he's weighing his options, trying to decide if he should really run or not, and when he ultimately decides to, he does so by saying he'll only do it if he can do it without changing who he is personally or compromising his own beliefs and ideals—the scene comes in sharp contrast to McCain's behavior throughout the campaign, during which he steadily, regularly reversed positions he'd previously publicly taken in order to appeal to aspects of the Republican Party that rejected him.
—The Edwards/Rielle Hunter affair is just weird. I never realized how early it started or how serious it was, nor how open they were about it. There are multiple occasions where his staffers warn him that it looks like he's having an affair with this strange lady he's always keeping around for dubious reasons, and he tells them he's not having an affair, that he understands the problem and that he'll take care of it...and then doesn't.
—There's a neat, now prophetic scene during the Republican primary where McCain, Mike Huckabee and the other contenders are all in the bathroom at the urinals before a debate, joking and making fun of Mitt Romney, when Romney walks in and everyone falls into a dead silence.
—Sarah Palin also come out of the book looking mentally ill, including a point where she apparently has some sort of breakdown and is only pulled out of it when she's reunited with her family. She emerges as a strange figure, as in a way she seems to have single-handedly mortally wounded McCain's only real, only possible advantages over Obama, but, at the same time, she was a Hail Mary pass, and the only thing that kept the McCain campaign competitive.
In retrospect, it appears he was going to lose either way; he chose to lose with a cynical, showy gamble that offered at least a possibility of political victory, even if it was at the cost of his reputation.
—Palin was apparently every bit as shockingly ignorant as she appeared in interviews, the most revealing bit I remember being the intimation that she didn't know why North and South Korea were different countries and, maybe the most scary, that she believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. There are only 50 governors in the United States at any one time; I always just sort of assumed all 50 of them knew at least as much as me—and/or as much as 14-year-old-me—knew about world history. I never liked the idea of Palin being a heartbeat away from the presidency; after Game Change, though, I was genuinely frightened by the prospect. As with the thought of Edwards having been made vice president in 2004, or the Democratic nominee in 2008, Palin now seems like a bullet dodged.
—I had not realized how seriously Clinton was considering running in 2004 and challenging President George W. Bush. That information sits uncomfortably in my mind...I don't know if she could have beaten him, but I can't imagine she would have fared any worse than Kerry. The fact that she didn't try sort of annoys me though, as she seems to have had a better chance, and not running seems sort of selfish of her.
—I also hadn't realized how seriously the McCain camp was considering making technically-Democrat Joe Lieberman McCain's running mate. They would have gotten destroyed as much as McCain/Palin, likely even worse, as both Democrats and Republicans loathed (and loathe!) Lieberman, but that knowledge too annoys me. It was quite publicly discussed in 2004 that Kerry wanted McCain to run as his VP, providing a united Democrat/Republican front of centrist Democrat/moderate Republican to unseat President Bush, and McCain put party loyalty and presidential ambitions above that possibility; a few years later, he wanted to try a similar maneuver, only with himself on top.
—My two favorite images of the book were probably these. First, President Bush calling up President Bill Clinton to commiserate about the press, during a time when Clinton was being rather pilloried for some of his statements regarding Obama that were being interpreted—fairly or not—as racially insensitive, if not straight-up racist. Apparently, Bush would occasionally call up Clinton just to shoot the shit, as Clinton was one of the only men on Earth who actually understood what being President was like.
The other is McCain, Lieberman and Senator Lindsey Graham gathered around a laptop, watching a YouTube video of John Edwards fussing with his hair, giggling like school girls and cajoling one another to play it again and again.
—I've always been skeptical, as I suppose everyone on Earth is, about the way we go about electing our presidents, and the fact that its the best campaigner who wins, not necessarily the best potential president. One thing I think this book made pretty clear, however, is that the running of a huge, national campaign is in and of itself a sort of rehearsal presidency, or at least a test of leadership all of the candidates have to take.
You have to run a huge organization, you have to pick the right people for the right jobs, you have to crisis manage, you have to understand the country and the world around you better than your rivals, you have to have and maintain a media strategy, you have to respond to events as they occur and you have to raise and spend a lot of money—Obama was much, much, much, much better at all of that than any of his opponents, and there are several points in the narrative where one might read about a particularly poor decision Clinton or McCain might have made—hiring the wrong person, firing or not firing someone, misreading the public, completely fucking up something like a response to the financial crisis—and think, Whew, if they couldn't get that right, how on Earth could they be president?
I wouldn't want the guy ultimately—even if just supposedly or nominally—in charge of the McCain campaign being the one deciding how to respond to intelligence that Osama bin Laden was in Abbottabad, Pakistan, or how to respond the Arab Spring or North Korean provocation, for example.
The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War by Daniel Stashower: Given the amount of ink used (and, more importantly, sold) on telling the story of the successful attempt on Lincoln's life at the end of the war, it is perhaps no surprise that Stashower would devote himself to an earlier, if less successful, attempt on America's greatest and, in some ways, most controversial president.
Stashower has an advantage over those devoting themselves to chronicling Lincoln's assassination in at least one regard—this ground is a lot well well-trod, and therefore there is a greater deal of suspense. I knew, for example, that Lincoln wasn't going to get killed at any point during the story, but I had no idea what action he would take at the climax in terms of trying to bravely face the plot as if it didn't exist, or sneak around it, because the precise method that Lincoln came to Washington D.C. as president-elect wasn't something my history teachers devoted much time to. The other events in the man's life obviously eclipsed this adventure in importance.
This story is as much that of Alan Pinkerton, who more-or-less invented the concept of the private eye, as it is Lincoln's, and Stashower devotes much of his attention to Pinkerton's biography, in order to explain exactly who the man was and what his role in combating the plot was. Pinkerton is but one of many interesting and colorful characters within, another being Kate Worn, the first female detective.
The story goes like this. As states are beginning to secede from the union, Lincoln is planning to arrive in the country's capital via train, his adoring supporters waiting at every stop to see him. There's no way to get to D.C. without traveling through Baltimore, Maryland, however, where anti-Lincoln sentiment is quite high. Fearing damage to his railroad, one railroad owner employs Pinkerton and his agency to investigate, and they gradually uncover several plots of some significance to kill the president-elect before he can make it to office, during his time in Baltimore.
As with narratives of his assassination, it can be kind of mind-boggling to read about the personal dangers that presidents used to be so vulnerable to in these pre-Secret Service days. Killing a president in the late 19th century seems remarkably easy, particularly when those defending him were mostly his friends, and thus amateur fighters, throngs of humanity were constantly around, and private jets, helicopters and even cars were decades away—the only way to get from city to city were along clearly established, not that difficult to sabotage rail routes known to all, with occasional trips in often open horse-drawn carriages.
Pinkerton and his men—and a few other agencies—quickly uncover several plots to kill Lincoln, in various states of seriousness, the degree of that seriousness still being controversial to this day. There is a great deal of suspense in the narrative, however, as despite Lincoln's survival, there is still the matter of whether he would travel through the lion's den or seek to sneak around it (I assumed he did the former, as that seems the braver, more noble thing, and I assumed we would hear more about the latter if he went that route, but he judiciously actually chose the latter, being more concerned with surviving and not endangering anyone else than with appearances).
Not being a Lincoln scholar myself, I can't judge Stashower's scholarship, but he doesn't seem too terribly sensationalistic, or prone to conspiracy theory, rather he reports from primary sources of the day and allows for reasons why participants might exaggerate or lie, presenting various interpretations without seeking to definitively answer any of several historical arguments involved.
I found it remarkably, even surprisingly thrilling and suspenseful–quite an accomplishment for a history book in which the ultimate fate of the title character is already known to the audience.
Game Change (2012): It was pretty much pure curiosity that drove me to check out this HBO adaptation of the Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's book about the 2008 presidential campaign: The cover features only two of the five people mentioned in the sub-title of the book ("Obama and The Clintons, McCain and Palin and the Race of a Lifetime"), and it's the under-card of the losing team that's front and center; one of several game-changers mentioned in the book, and a "game change" that briefly helped resurrect McCain's campaign and draw it closer to Obama's campaign...before ultimately imploding, erasing McCain's only semi-effective argument to be president (That is, he was an experienced statesmen whereas his opponent was a relative newbie running on his own popularity and celebrity status, rather than a record; anything said about Obama, however, went double, triple, quadruple or more for Palin).
You can judge this DVD by the cover; writer Danny Strong and Jay Roach chuck out everything but the Palin story arc, which comes at the climax of the second and (honestly) less interesting section of the book. So the entirety of the Democratic primary, with it titanic personalities and bloody political battles, is gone, as is the majority of the Republican primary and, oddly enough, even McCain's role in his own campaign.
The section of the movie devoted to his campaign is mostly there to establish how incredibly desperate he is and how badly the Obama campaign is kicking their asses, offered as a way of explaining why they gambled on Palin at the last minute, and barely vetted her (Woody Harrelson's Steve Schmidt tells Ed Harris' McCain, "If it were me, I'd rather lose by ten points going for the win than lose by one point and look back and say 'Goddamn, we should have gone for the win.'")
So absent are the Democrats in this that Obama and Joe Biden aren't even played by actors, they simply appear on television screens and monitors, Roach using actual media footage of them (This is incredibly weird during a brief scene devoted to the vice presidential debate, as Julianne Moore's Palin is on stage with Biden, who shakes hands with her at one point, although his face is hidden (real Palin might not always like the way she's portrayed in the media, but between Moore and Tina Fey, she's certainly been lucky enough to have beautiful, luminous, talented women playing her).
Aside from chopping it down to The Sarah Palin Story and turning on a particular interview so as to suggest Schmidt was the protagonist, a role he more or less shares with Palin in the film's flip-flopping focus, it seems like a remarkably faithful adaptation. There were relatively few lines that didn't echo familiarly from having heard them in the audiobook.
The big, revealing moments of the second half of her 2008 as revealed in the book are dramatized: Schmidt and company's cursory vetting (based in large part on the fact that they wanted her to be as perfect as they hoped), her almost eerie perfect calm at the beginning of the campaign, which she attributed to her knowledge that whatever was happening was God's plan, her Eliza Doolittle-like training on the way to a knockout convention speech, the intimations that she was having a mental breakdown of some kind, the phoenix-like resurrection at the Vice Presidential debate and the "going rogue" phase where she and Schmidt came into conflict, a conflict which the film suggests arose from Palin's fundamental misunderstanding of how presidential campaigns work (That is, the vice presidential candidate is supposed to be part of the presidential campaign, not campaigning for vice president in some parallel effort).
I don't remember what Palin had to say about this movie when it originally aired, if she had anything to say about it at all. I would have to assume she would find it unflattering, although, again, being played by Julianne Moore has to be at least a little flattering. If it's anti-Palin in bias, though, that's simply because she's the focus of all the attention. She's shown in negative and positive lights, while McCain appears in a supporting role in his own campaign and the democrats only exist off-screen.
Roach is particularly kind to Palin's family, who the real Palin is obviously and understandably sensitive about being covered or discussed by media (at least negatively; it's not as if she kept them off the campaign trail or out of the limelight). Their portrayal in the film is positively beatific. I think the Bristol character gets a handful of lines, and the Levi and Todd characters one a piece. They're all extremely positive portrayals, shown as a source of strength for the character (Todd's one line is about encouraging Palin to be herself, for example) and as the pillars of her faith (The book, for what it's worth, is fairly respectful of the Palins. Bristol's pregnancy obviously comes up, as does Todd's membership in an Alaskan separatist party, and "Troopergate," but for the most part they only appear in passing, usually neutral but occasionally positive lights).
No one benefits more from this focus on Palin than the real McCain; the most embarrassing actions he took as portrayed in the book (mostly his temporary suspension of his campaign to call on Obama and President Bush to come together to meet with him and try and solve the financial crisis, a moment that demonstrated Obama's leadership abilities and McCain's lack of them) are barely even mentioned in the film, and certainly aren't dramatized.
The actors are all fairly subdued in their portrayals, at least when it comes to the famous ticks of their political celebrity characters, and it's damn weird seeing Moore and Woods looking, dressing, sounding and moving so much like McCain and Palin, but also a bit off at the same time.
It was nice to see Peter MacNicol, who plays McCain campaign staffer Rick Davis, even in a small, thankless role like this. I forgot how much I missed Peter MacNicol after Ally McBeal ended. Sarah Paulson, who plays Palin's handler/sparring partner Nicole Wallace, does a particularly fine job.
So I'm kind of conflicted about this. It's a decent adaptation of a small sliver of a book, and not even the best sliver.
Lawless (2012): Did you see Zero Dark Thirty and think to yourself, "Hey, I wonder what that Jessica Chastain character looks like when she's not wearing any clothes?" Well have I got a movie for you!
A Chastain nude scene isn't the movie's only, attribute, however.
Featuring a screenplay adapted by Nick Cave (yes, that Nick Cave!) from Matt Bondurant's novel of the rise and fall of a family of moonshiners in Depression Era Virginia, the film is filled with fun character actors in fairly outsized performances, with Shia LaBeouf the protagonist and narrator. He's the second-youngest son of a family of legendary tough-guy brothers, who urges them into the business and sees that it blossoms—until it ultimately busts after a covered bridge shoot-out.
The cast includes Jason Clarke and Tom Hardy as the oldest, toughest brothers (Damn, Bane is cute when he's not wearing his weird throat mask, isn't he?), Gary Oldman as "Pretty Boy" Floyd Banner (See Commissioner Gordon go gangster!), Guy Pearce as a sadistic, germaphobic federal marshall, fetching Mia Wasikowska as LaBeouf's love interest and Chastain as the brothers' partner and Hardy's lover. The period setting provides several striking moments, but the image I remember best—outside of Chastain's presence—is the scene of a victim of tar-and-feathering being revealed and, when you think this poor soul can't possibly still be alive, moving slightly.
Lawless has a pretty damn good score and soundtrack, too, produced by Cave and someone named Warren Ellis (there's got to be more than one Warren Ellis, right?) that features old-timey sounding songs sung by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley; the latter's cover of the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" and a few versions of "Fire and Brimstone" being standouts.
The Lucky One (2012): You guys know that for my day job I work in a library, right? Well, when I go home to visit my mother, she often asks me to bring her some movies. And I'll ask which ones, and she'll say "you pick one," and so I'll bring a selection—a couple action movies, a couple of dramas, a couple of romances—and she'll pick one or two out to watch. Sometimes I'll be in the room while she watches them, typing about comics on my lap-top in the corner while half-watching them with her.
This is one of those movies.
Based on the Nicholas Sparks book of the same name, this is my very first experience with Sparks, aside from seeing his goddam books all the time (One weird thing about working in libraries is one develops enmity for certain authors; like, you know the saying "familiarity of breeds contempt?" I'm somewhat contemptuous of certain authors now. Especially that goddam James Patterson, whose mug I see on the back cover of a book maybe 500 times a day; I actually probably see Patterson's face more often than I see my own, as I'm generally just in front of mirrors about twice a day).
Going in, all I knew about the movie was 1.) It was based on Sparks' book, 2.) That Zac Efron appeared in a spread in Men's Health magazine carrying logs to promote it, 3.) That most of the women I worked with, regardless of their age, thought he looked super-hot in this movie and 4.) The basic, creepy premise of the film—that he was a soldier who finds a picture of this lady which he believes "saves" him as some sort of good luck charm, and then he stalks her back to the states, where they fall in love.
It was a pretty strange movie, one that lost me pretty much immediately, when Efron's character is asked by Taylor Shcilling's Beth who he is and why he walked from his hometown of Colorado to her veterinarian hospital in Louisiana to talk to her, and he decides not to tell her the truth. I mean, I guess the movie would have ended there if he did, maybe, but I'm not sure a relationship built on deceit is a good one, or at least a believable one, particularly when it already involves stalking and multi-state marathon walking. Maybe it doesn't matter so much if you look like Efron?
(Efron has a great beard in this. I was truly jealous of his beard, and it inspired me to want to get a beard-trimmer of my own).
After that initial lie, when Schilling's character and her mom decide to hire the mysterious stranger on the spot for a job, is 100% completely predictable, with the possible exception of the ending, which has a climactic scene where I assumed something weird and tragic wouldn't happen, because it would be way too narratively convenient for anyone on earth to suspend their disbelief long enough not to scream at the movie screen...but then it went ahead and happened anyway. Again, maybe Efron's presence makes everything okay.
I sort of wished I never saw it, because part of me would like to see the next Sparks movie, which stars Julianne Hough, who I have a Dancing With The Stars-inspired crush on. Now that I have a general idea what Nicholas Sparks movies are like, however, I don't know if I can do it.
Check out the posters for Lucky One and the Hough-starring one though:
Oh, and here's an injustice that a co-worker of mine brought up when we discussed these latest Nicholas Sparks-derived movies, so I'll bring it up here. Apparently, there was a mini-uproar in some quarters over Shilling, who is 28, playing the lover of Efron, who is only 25—she was way too old for him, some argued.
Meanwhile, in Safe Haven Julianne Hough (23) is playing opposite of hopefully-ashamed-of-himself Transformers star Josh Duhamel (40!) and there is no uproar at all, despite the fact that Duhamel is way too old for Hough, by the half your age + 7 formula.
The Man with the Iron Fists (2012): The RZA, Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino and old-school, Shaw Brothers-style kung fu—what could possibly go wrong?
That's certainly what I thought going into this film, which is directed and co-written (with Roth) by RZA, who also stars as the title character and produced the all hip-hop soundtrack (Tarantino "presents," whatever that means—he's not listed as a producer). And in truth, there is a lot to like about the movie, which provides kung fu enthusiasts with all of the many pleasures that kung fu movies have to offer. If you like kung fu movies, you'll find the very things you'll like in this movie. And yet...
It never quite comes together. It felt a bit like an extremely impressive juggling act in which the juggler drops everything at the end, making a lot of noise, breaking the things he was tossing around, and injuring himself and members of the audience in the process.
It may have been the over-the-top gore, which, rather than used sparingly, is ever-present.
It may have been the formless, shaggy-dog nature of the plot, which lacks a strict focus on a single protagonist, but heaps attention on several of the heroes at certain times and forgets them for long stretches—the title character, for example, has a long origin story appear in the third act of the film, after he's disappeared often enough that the second and/or third leads seem like they might actually be the heroes of the film.
It may have been the fact that there is simply too much of a good thing here, with every single character boasting their own nicknames, super-powers and gimmicks and weapons.
Personally, I suspect much of the lack of cohesion, focus and ability to live up to the high expectations that many talented folks who clearly love their subject matter comes from more fundamental problems, like poor editing (as old-school as much of the film is, the editing is modern; rather than setting up a camera to let the viewer marvel at the wire-powered kung fu and rapid fire blows and blocks, the shots appear in different angles at a speedy staccato pace) and even poorer writing ("They had a gattlin' gun, and more bullets than China's got rice" being my least favorite bit of the narration).
That, and the fact that so much of what's here is stuff we've seen done far better before, in previous Tarantino/RZA collaboration Kill Bill. Lucy Liu in elaborate Asian dresses serving as the ass-kicking bad guy boss, Lucy Liu's army in a climactic battle in an inn, Gordon Liu in a cameo as a white eyebrow master, the marriage of a hip hop soundtrack to scenes of kung fu, and so on.
RZA plays the blacksmith, a black smith who builds remarkable weaponry for the many warring clans of Jungle City and, in his spare time, walks the streets in a hooded cloak to visit Lady Silk (Jamie Chung) in the brothel she works in; he's hoping to earn enough to buy her freedom from her madam, Lucy Liu's Madame Blossom (her weapon of choice is a bladed fan, rather than a sword, so her role is a bit different from that in Kill Bill).
Meanwhile, the Lion Clan's second in command Silver Lion (Byron Mann, giving maybe the best, most over-the-top performance in the film), overthrows his leader Gold Lion and takes control of the clan. They have their sights set on a shipment of gold coming through town shortly.
Other character/combatants include Rick Yune's X-Blade, who wears "a suit of knives" that seems to have retractable Wolverine claws all over it; Russel Crowe's Jack Knife, a bearded, hedonistic Englishman who wields a weird-ass saw-action knife gun; Dave Bautista's massive Brass Body, who is covered in weird tattoos and has the power to basically turn into a gold-tinted Colossus; Daniel Wu's evil-eyebrowed Poison Dagger; and Grace Huang and Andrew Lin's Gemini Killers.
After way too long, two teams of good guys (Blacksmith, Jack Knife, X-Blade) and bad guys emerge (Silver Lion, Brass Body, Poison Dart), with Lucy Liu and her warrior whores out for themselves and against all-comers, but ultimately leaning toward the good guys.
The Iron Hands...? When the Black Smith has his hands chopped off, he forges new hands of metal, which he can control like real hands thanks to his time spent training under Gordon Liu and a special chi-enhancing drink his monk brothers brew.
It certainly has its moments, and is well worth fans of the genre seeing, but overall it seems an over-eager homage with better intentions than execution.
The premise of the series, as intoned by narrator John Hurt, is laid out in the opening:
We're living through the Golden Age of dinosaur discoveries. All over the world, a whole new generation of dinosaurs has been revealed...Each of the episodes—"Lost World," "Feathered Dragons," "Last Killers," "Fight For Life," "New Giants," and "The Great Survivors"—narrows its focus somewhat to various composite individual animals, embedding them in little dramas, the particulars of each of which are well supported by fossil evidence, which is presented crisply and clearly through fast-moving maps, silhouetted figures and dates, that pop up and move quickly across the screen, looking like the sorts of files Tony Stark might keep on dinosaurs in one of the Iron Man movies.
In just the last few years we have uncovered the most extraordinary fossils, exquisitely preserved and tantalizingly intact. Combined with the latest imaging technology we have been able to probe deeper and reveal more than ever before.
It gives us our first truly global view of these incredible animals.
These explain that, say, a Stegosaurus fossil was found with an Allosaurus mouth-shaped chunk taken out of its plate, and an Allosaurus spine was found with a wound the size and shape of a Stegoasuarus tail-spike in it, from which the producers have extrapolated a particular scene.
Every scene is like that: Stunning animation, incredible action, efficiently delivered research.
While appearances are made by many familiar dinosaurs, what's so striking about Planet Dinosaur isn't simply the quality of the film-making and through nature of its creations, but the fact that it gives life to many "new" dinosaurs, in some cases for the first time and, in others, offers the best look at them we've yet seen in a film medium: Spinosaurus, the T-Rex replacement in Jurasic Park 3; the giant, sea-going pliosaurs dubbed "Predator-X"; Sarcosuchus, better known as "Super Croc"; the half-bird, half-dragon-looking Gigantoraptor, which was my new favorite dinosaur upon seeing it for the first time; Hatzegopteryx, the giraffe-sized giant pterosaurs that are now my new new favorite dinosaurs; and Nothronychus, a herbivorous theropod descended from Tyrannosaurs that has gigantic, slashing claws.
To reduce science to its most base, this is full of awesome dinosaur fights.
Gigantoraptors versus Tyrannosaurs, Tyrannosaurs versus Nothronychuses, a herd of Argentinosaurus vs. a pack of Mapusaurus and, perhaps most thrillingly (and, unexpectedly), a gliding, climbing chase scene between a four-winged Epidexipteryx and a Sinoraptor. There are probably three and a half Jurassic Parks, two King Kongs and a Valley of the Gwangi remake worth of movies in this thing.
I had heard of a lot of these dinosaurs, even the newest ones, as they were being discovered over the first decades of the 21st century, but I learned a hell of a lot watching this, and, regardless of how much you may know about some of these guys, the filmmaking is pretty extraordinary.
Among the new things I learned was this interesting tidbit, regarding the extinction event 65 million years ago that Hurt confidently asserts was definitely the result of a an asteroid striking the Gulf of Mexico: "Virtually all life on earth was affected," he intones and we see statistics of the fatalities (100% of dinosaurs, 95% of birds, 90% of mammals, 15% of amphibians, etc).
"More than 60% of all species were wiped out," he continues. "Yet the extinction wasn't a lottery. One factor more than other determined the dinosaurs' fate: Size. On land, no animal weighing more than 35 kilograms survived."
Kind of puts a damper on the hopes of cryptozoologists looking for relic species of dinosaurs, huh?
One thing I don't understand, and would like to learn more about, is why the large marine reptiles and sea-going dinosaurs became extinct around the same time. Basically, the dust cloud of the asteroid blocked out the sun, killing off the plants, which killed off the large herbivores, which killed off the large carnivores and, after a brief feast, the large scavengers. I suppose the same thing would happen under the sea as well, but one might expect many animals—particularly deep sea ones—to get along alright withe the sun blotted out. The narration makes a point of saying "on land, no animal weight more than 35 kilograms survived," after all.
What about under water?
Anyway, if you like dinosaurs, then you should totally see this: It's awesome. And if you don't like dinosaurs, I believe you're lying.
The images in this post are taken from Planet Dinosaur: The Next Generation of Killer Giants (Firefly Books; 2012), a tie-in book by Cavan Scott. I'm not sure if I'll write it up in a future version of this column or not (I haven't read it yet, just looked through it for spellings and images to scan); at the very least, I have one more post about the Hatzegopteryx to write, as the discovery of a giant, carnivorous pterosaur rewrites the end of an all-time classic of dinosaur adventure fiction in a perfectly fitting way.
Red: Werewolf Hunter (2010): The premise of this cheap, made-for-TV (SyFy, to be specific) monster-fighter movie doesn’t quite make sense.
Popular nerd crush Felicia Day's FBI agent Virginia “Red” Sullivan brings her fiancé (and fellow agent) Kavan Smith to meet her cagey, secretive family.
She wants to let him know that she and her family are descendants of Little Red Ridinghood (or so the pre-credits scene seems to suggest) and are a family of werewolf hunters, a trade they pass down from generation to generation.
The fact that Red wants to bring a husband into the life and get married is something the rest of the family is resistant too, as they all prefer to keep to themselves, which kind of makes the whole line of werewolf hunting thing an unlikely trade to continue: How are they supposed to pass the family business down to the next generation if no one ever gets married and has kids? (The suggestion that Red procreate with one of her adult brothers is never even hinted at, so that aspect of the plot is not icky, just nonsensical).
As fate would have it, the same weekend Red returns home, the nearby werewolves are learning how to change at will thanks to a charismatic leader who broke some werewolf/werewolf hunter treaty and abducted a whole bunch of victims to play The Most Dangerous Game with in a ghost town near Red’s family home.
It’s not very good. The CGI werewolves look even less convincing than guys in Halloween masks might have, and about as lupine. When they’re killed, they catch on fire (aren’t burning werewolves a bit more dangerous than normal werewolves?) before vanishing in a puff of CGI smoke, like video game sprites getting first-person shooter-ed.
Each and every cliché that can be adhered is adhered to, and nothing new or fresh or even mildly interesting is added to what is essentially a homemade answer to those interminable Underworld movies, which each look like masterpieces in comparison.
Being of that certain age then, I was pretty excited about this latest of the made-for-DVD Scooby=Doo movies, in which the gang go to a fictionalized San Diego Comic-Con International-like comics convention (The Mega-Mondo-Pop-Comic-Con-apalooza, I think it was), only to find it being menaced by Blue Falcon supervillain Mister Hyde.
This movie departs with the shared-universe idea, however, so that The Blue Falcon and Dyno-Mutt aren't real people (or a real person and a real android dog, whatever), but merely characters in a campy old TV show that Shaggy and Scooby adore; The Blue Falcon is, in the world of this movie, essentially like Batman '66 (We see a couple of clips of the original cartoon presented as clips of the TV show within the movie; does that all make sense?).
Blue Falcon was played for the show-within-the-movie by the actor Owen Garrison (a nod to Gary Owens, who voiced the original character), and is voiced here by Jeff Bennett, an Adam West-like actor shown as all washed-up and deeply bitter about having to attend comics conventions and live off the money he gets signing autographs, and even more bitter about the upcoming dark, gritty reboot of the Blue Falcon as a huge feature film (Diedrich Bader, who voiced Batman in The Brave and The Bold, voices the new, Hollywood Falcon and the actor playing him, a guest-of-honor at the convention).
Sadly, this rethinking means that Dyno-Mutt, the Costello of the Falcon/Dog Wonder act, is almost completely absent, viewed only in a few seconds worth of a clip of the old show, and as a special effect in the new movie-within-the-movie.
There are plenty of in-jokes, however, as the producers plundered Hanna-Barbera's superheroes for characters to put on posters, on comics and to have appear as floats or as cosplayers to dress up as. It's a fun, alternate universe where El Dorado and Black Vulcan are the most popular of the Super Friends, there's a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade-style balloon of Frankenstein Jr., and the Herculoids are among the more popular subjects of cosplayers. One could while away the run-time of this movie counting allusions to old, mostly-forgotten Hanna-Barbera heroes.
As has long been the case with these films, Mask of the Blue Falcon is presented as a feature film-length version of one of the old TV shows, with high production quality sitting uneasily atop the original cheap, quick and easy designs of the characters and their world, and the trio of straightmen characters (Fred, Daphne and Velma) getting beefed-up roles and characterization.
Mr. Hyde is terrorizing the con with seemingly supernatural crimes based on his appearances on the Blue Falcon TV show, his intent apparently to stop the Blue Falcon movie from ever premiering. Suspects include Garrison, the movies publicity hungry producer and/or mercurial star, a comics retailer making a killing on marked-up Blue Falcon merchandise, his unhappy nephew and Garrison's long-suffering booth-mate. As mysteries, even Scooby-Doo mysteries, go, this is a particularly easy one to figure out, although there's a pretty good, modern Hollywood-style fake-out pre-ending. It's fitting that the villain's ultimate plot is ridiculous in the exact same manner of Silver Age supervillains: The haul is $5 million, but to get at it, the bad guy creates an army of robots, including one that's big enough to fill and then destroy a stadium, and have to cost at least several million dollars to build.
As with most of these direct-to-DVD Scooby movies, this was extremely tedious, but much less so than the others, thanks in no small part to all the comic book culture content and the dozens and dozens of Easter eggs.
The best part is, without a doubt, the opening credits, in which the gang is chased by various monsters from throughout their history through the pages of a comic book, when a League of Hanna-Barbera heroes come to their rescue, ending with an awesome posed image that leads directly into a homage to the opening of the original cartoon, only instead of the gang gathered around a book, they're gathered around a Blue Falcon comic book.
Seriously, why doesn't DC Comics publish this...?
The new episode is in the style and manner of the direct-to-DVDs movies Warner Bros has been cranking out with some regularity, an extremely polished adaptation of the original designs that still strikes me as slightly disturbing (There is a title sequence featuring the gang as chibis fleeing an evil snowman in little sleighs painted like the Mystery Machine; I don’t think I’ve seen chibi versions of the Scooby gang before).
The monster is a scary snowman—The Sinister Snowman—with spectacular abilities that allow it to morph and transform. Legend has it that it's the monstrous ghost of a cranky old man who was driven mad by the construction of a gigantic, department store-style toy store with a massive glockenspiel built directly across the street from his mansion.
The Snowman is now haunting the toy store, which seems on the brink of financial ruin. It’s up to the gang to figure out if the Sinister Snowman is for real (he’s not, although the way his “powers” are faked sounds about as plausible as if he really were the hateful soul of a bitter man possessing the winter elements) and, if not, which of the handful of suspects is behind the creature.
It is essentially an incredibly slick production of a mystery sticking to the formula of the original show, something I had a lot more interest in before I hit double-digits than I do now.
Despite the title of the collection, it’s one of the few cartoons that actually have anything at all to do with Christmas.
These include a 2002 episode of What’s New, Scooby-Doo? featuring The Headless Snowman and “The Nutcracker Scoob” episode of the early ‘80s New Scooby-Doo Mysteries show (that was the series in which the gang was reduced to Daphne, Shaggy, Scooby and Scrappy-fucking-Doo, with only occasional appearances by Fred and/or Velma, as in this episode). The monster here is the Christmas Carol-inspired The Ghost of Christmas Never.
For the remainder of the episodes, they seem to be going for anything with snow in it, which means:
—What’s New episode “There’s No Creature Like Snow Creature” in which a man-shaped ice monster that travels around on its own personal avalanche tries to disrupt a snowboarding competition.
—“Rocky Mountain Yiiiiiii!” from 1979-1980 series Scooby and Scrappy Doo (That’s the series in which Scrappy first appeared, and was basically just the original Scooby formula with Scrappy added to the gang), in which The Ghost of Jeremiah Pratt, who looks like a white and blue colored mountain man tries to scare skiers off his mountain (In addition to Scrappy and a laugh track, this episode is further made hard-to-watch by voice actress Marla Frumpkin’s jarringly-different Velma voice)
—“Snow Job Too Small” from the contemptible 1982 Scooby and Scrappy-Doo Puppy Hour, a seven-minute short in which “The Fearless Detectives” Shaggy, Scooby and Scrappy encounter The Abominable Snowman (another man in a mask, this time the only suspect provided).
—“A Scary Night with a Snow Beast Fright” from Young Caleb’s favorite version of Scooby Doo, the 1976-1977 The Scooby-Doo Show, in which the gang encounter the Native American legend (seemingly) come to life, The Snow Beast, which looks like a white fur-covered Tyrannosaurus Rex (and was one of the more imaginative monster designs of the era).
—“A Shocking Ghost” from the same series, featuring The 10,000-Volt Ghost and some of the best sound-work of those earlier episodes. In addition to that wonderful incidental music, this one opens with a theremin riff and the Ghost emits a neat high-pitched, vibration-like noise.
—“Scooby-Doo Meets Laurel and Hardy” from the early seventies New Scooby-Doo Movies (Young Caleb’s other favorite version of Scooby, although the laugh track sure grates. It’s worth noting the opening sequence is drastically changed to cut out all of the guest-stars, probably because of some issue regarding rights for guest-stars like The Addams Family, The Harlem Globetrotters, Batman and Robin and The Three Stooges).
This series really fascinates me now that I’m aware that some of these guest-stars were, like, real people; like, Laurel and Hardy were real, live human actors whose careers had climaxed decades before 1972, and both of whom were, by this time, long dead, but still appearing here as themselves…only voiced by Daws Butler. A few seconds of research reveals that “Merchandiser Larry Harmon” claimed ownership of the pair’s likenesses, and co-produced a cartoon series featuring them in the late 1960s for Hanna-Barbera, so, while they were really real, they were cartoon guest-stars, I guess (A nice, big, thorough, complete history of Scooby-Doo is another of those books I really wish someone would write sometime, and I would if I were independently wealthy enough to take, like, five years off to study Scooby-Doo and interview surviving participants in the shows' productions).
The monster here is called “The Ghost of Bigfoot;” he looks like an oddly blocky hairy hominid, with really big, bush eyebrows and beard, and a wicked skullet.
—“That’s Snow Ghost” from the original Scooby-Doo, Where are You? series, a mystery whose monster is supposedly the actual ghost of a dead yeti from the Himalayas, who came to America to haunt the man it held responsible for its rather hilarious death. Attempting to jump across a ravine to claim a victim, the yeti instead smashes face-first into the cliff wall with a gong-like crash and then falls to its death.
That’s twice Scooby and the gang encounter the ghosts of hairy hominid in less than five years!
—Having run out of snowy episodes, they throw in What’s New episode “Toy Story Boo”, in which the toys at a mall toy store seem to come alive each night to wreak havoc. Because kids get toys for Christmas, I guess.
—And, finally, another lame-ass short featuring just Shaggy, Scooby and Scrappy entitled “Tenderbigfoot,” in which they encounter Bigfoot himself while camping. This one not only doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas, there isn’t even any snow, and it was presumably only included because so many other versions of Bigfeet are on these discs.
So out of a dozen monsters, it seems three were sentient snowmen of some kind (The Sinister Snowman, The Headless Snowman, Snow Creature), while four were some relative of Bigfoot’s (The Abominable Snowman, The Snow Ghost, Bigfoot, The Ghost of Bigfoot), and the remaining five were one-offs (Snow Beast, 10,000-Volt Ghost, the living toys, The Ghost of Christmas Never, The Ghost of Jeremiah Pratt), making hairy hominids the most popular holiday monster in the Scooby-Doo canon, I guess.
Seven Psychopaths (2012): Writer/director Martin McDonagh's follow-up to In Bruges has an interesting title evoking riffs on Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and a handful of actors who are known for delightfully over-acting and playing excellent, excellent psychopaths: Colin Farrel, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson. It sure looked promising.
Having actually seen it, however, I immediately felt a bit cheated—it's hardly what the title, ad campaign and trailer suggested, even promised (Except for in occasional semi-fantasy sequences, in which scenes from a screenplay being written in the movie—how meta!—are dramatized by the actors playing the folks writing the screenplay; the TV spots especially seemed to sample from the fantasy sequence).
Farrel and Walken, especially, don't seem to play psychopathic...or at least as psychopathic as you might expect them to in a film with the word "Psychopaths" in the title.
Farrel plays an alcoholic, Irish (or is that redundant?*) screenwriter struggling with his latest film, of which all he has is a title: Seven Psychopaths. His rather...intense best friend, played by Sam Rockwell, wants to help him, but soon gets him in quite a bit of trouble. Rockwell's character is a professional dog-napper. Working with Walken's character, he kidnaps people's dogs and, when rewards are offered, Walken returns them and collects the money.
Things go awry when they steal unstable gangster Woody Harrelson's beloved Shih Tzu, and, rather than wanting to pay to get his dog back, Harrelson's character wants revenge. While on the lam, the three heroes struggle to finish the screenplay.
It's a lot of fun, really, and there are indeed some great moments in it, particularly the dramatized graveyard shoot-out fantasy scene, and a few bits of Walken dialogue ("It's a cravat," and his declining to put his hands up when asked to by a guy with a gun, which I think is featured in ever ad for the movie). Great cameos by Tom Waits, Brendan Sexton III (Warren from Empire Records, one of my favorite movies of all time) and...whoever plays the Zodiac Killer (I thought it was the dad from Family Ties, but I can't find any confirmation; maybe it was just Richard Wharton, who I always confuse with Michael Gross).
Zero Dark Thirty (2012): Woah, woah, woah...this is the movie that got nominated for like every Oscar...?
That guy from that one cop show I liked that got canceled after just one season (the one with the Billy Corgan opening theme and Jennifer Beals) tortures the fuck out of some fictional-ized or wholly fictional terrorist character, while a fetching red head looks on and gives TV cop the thumbs up. Then she and several other actors I recognize from television (including another guy from a cop show I liked that got canceled after just one season!), sit in offices doing vague administrative stuff, have vague arguments, and watch clips of the real-world news of real-world terror attacks forever. Then the movie stops following the redheaded lady—who was recruited out of high school (?) to "catch" Osama bin Laden by wearing bad wigs and yelling at Coach Taylor—to become an entirely different movie that seemingly has nothing to do with her, a dramatization of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound.
It's a weird movie, that's for sure, and I don't really understand the structure. It gets its name from the (unexplained in the movie) for the operation, which seems uncomfortably grafted onto the rest of the narrative, a sort of speculative dramatization of what the hunt for bin Laden might have been like, through the eyes of fictional or fictionalized characters who may or may not have been real, carefully avoiding any and all action scenes or the need to show any real life politicians or powerful people (James Gandolfini as CIA director Leon Panetta is as high up the chain of command as the movie goes, and his is little more than a cameo).
I understand there was a great deal of controversy about the movie at the time of its release, particularly regarding what its stance on torture really is (to my reading, it looks pro, while noting that it ain't easy being the torturer, emotionally), and whether it implies that torture lead to the capture of bin Laden or not.
Given how much of the movie is based on guestimation or pulled-out-of-the ass information, it's hard to say, which I suppose is irresponsible filmmaking. It's not a documentary, obviously, but neither is it an invented story, and it hangs uncomfortably between fact and fiction. I do wish I had seen it in a theater, rather than watching it on DVD on my laptop, where I could so easily minimize the screen, open up a window to the Internet, and fact check as I watched.
The raid portion of the movie seemed to scan almost exactly with the accounts I read in No Easy Day (which woulda made for a better movie, as the protagonist can be followed rather than forgotten when it comes to the climax) and Manhunt, the former of which has a character in it that Chastain's Maya seems based on, the latter has a male character that's not much like her at all (for one thing, he's male).
Chastain did do a good job, though. Much of the film consists of her having feelings at then-current events, and she's therefore asked to carry the movie up until the climax. I don't know that she does, but she certainly pushes a rather leaden film around admirably.
So are there a kickstarter for Chicago Code and The Unusuals films or what...?
*It's okay, I'm a quarter Irish, so it's not racist if I say it. Well, It's a quarter not-racist, anyway)