Friday, May 13, 2016

EVERYTHING ELSE:

FILM

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Upon deciding to make and release a film in which Batman and Superman fight one another, Warner Brothers and director Zack Snyder decided not to title it Batman Vs. Superman, the proposed title of a once announced and in-development film, but Batman V. Superman, as if it were a court case...and then to tack on a more or less nonsensical sub-title that vaguely presages a future Justice League movie to compete with Marvel/Disney's Avengers franchise. It's worth keeping in mind, as not only was that the first hint that this film was likely going to be disastrously bad, but also because it proved emblematic of almost every other aspect of the film: Snyder would always make the wrong choice, and make it not just wrong, but bafflingly wrong.

Given the Snyder's track record, the dismal trailers, that title and the horrible opening weekend word of mouth (I didn't read any reviews, but couldn't avoid the headlines of reviews), my expectations were adjusted as low as they could possibly be adjusted. And the film still failed to meet them.

During the first of my two bathroom breaks (the film runs two hours and thirty-one minutes, including two consecutive climactic battles and an interminable series of epilogues), I returned to find Jeremy Irons' Alfred teasing Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne about his heavy-drinking. My friend told me what transpired while I was gone: "Batman went into the mausoleum, and there was blood dripping out of his mom's tomb. Then a bat-monster with fangs jumped out and bit him on the neck. And Lois Lane was in the men's restroom, and someone told her she belonged there because she had such big balls." I didn't believe her; I assumed she was kidding, because why would that happen? In fact, I thought she was kidding up until I saw the extended sequence set in a ruined city in a desert, where Batman is wearing a trench coat and goggles over his costume and tries to buy kryptonite, but is interrupted by Superman's army, Parademons and then Superman himself, who rips out Batman's heart. And then he wakes up, and it's just a weird-ass dream sequence–and then maybe the Flash appears out of the speed force to shout at Bruce Wayne a warning that has nothing to do with what preceded or follows–and Batman wakes up again.

Okay, bat-monster in his mom's grave? Sure, why not?

So Affleck plays a late-career Bruce Wayne/Batman, who has been active for 20 years now (And yet the press and police still refer to him as "The Bat of Gotham"," and the police try to shoot him on sight...although there's also a bat-signal in Gotham, so...). The film opens by re-staging the most objectionable parts of Snyder's 2013 Man of Steel, which this is a direct sequel to: The battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his army, which leveled city blocks and lead to the deaths of "thousands", as per the dialogue in this film (although I would have guessed millions, based on my viewings of Man of Steel), complete with gross, 9/11-imagery appropriation that uses the visual trappings of a national tragedy like particularly exploitative frosting on the movie equivalent of junk food.

This time, we're seeing the events from the perspective of Old Bruce Wayne, who races recklessly through the streets of Metropolis, almost mowing down bystanders and causing untold automobile accidents, in an attempt to save his employees at the local branch of Wayne Enterprises Or Whatever. Wayne is not a well man, as he's haunted by the deaths of his parents (staged in slow-motion, for those in the viewing audience who hadn't heard about what happened to the Waynes in the previous nine Batman feature films) and prophetic dreams of the upcoming Justice League movie.

He's not so sure about this Superman character, and so when Batman's not busting crooks in Gotham City and branding them with a red hot bat-brand so that they will be killed in prison later (I am not making this up), he's trying to track down a large enough source of kryptonite with which to murder Superman (Seriously, not making that up either: "He has the power to wipe out the entire human race and if we believe there is even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty," Old Man Batman tells Alfred when justifying his pre-meditated killing of Superman just in case he goes bad one day).

What's Superman up to? When we first see him, he's rescuing Lois Lane (Amy Adams, who spends about 65% of her substantial screen-time soaking wet, for some reason) from a terrorist group in Africa. He's too late to save Jimmy Olsen from being shot in the face (according to the credits and interviews Snyder has given, the CIA agent posing as a photog is Jimmy Olsen, anyway; he's not name-checked as such in the film), or to prevent dozens of other deaths, but he does arrive in time to save Lois...by tackling the guy holding a gun to her head at super-speed and flying through a couple of brick walls with him.

Superman's not so sure about this Batman character and his ruthless brand of justice (which doesn't seem any more ruthless than his own; Superman kills his foes outright, Batman brands them so they can be killed in prison by others), and he wants to write an investigative crime piece on him for the Daily Planet, but editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne, back again) would rather he stick to writing sports.

Oh, by the way, Clark and Lois are apparently an item, and have been living together; there's an implied Man of Steel 2 that occurred before this film, just as there is an implied cycle of Batman films that might explain things like why Wayne Manor is now a burnt-out ruin and Wayne and Alfred apparently live in the Batcave drinking heavily together all the time (All of that they don't bother to show, but we see the murder of his parents again, repeatedly, because, it turns out, that the film hinges on the coincidence that both of the title characters' moms are named Martha–again, not making this up).

Before they fight, some actually interesting characters appear. Jesse Eisenberg's Luthor, presented as a motor-mouthed millennial whose collection of ticks gradually transforms him into more of a Joker than a Luthor, is one. Eisenberg may be over-acting all over the place, but he's the sole actor who seems to be giving a performance, and the sole actor who seems to have any fun at all, so let's not begrudge him the CGI scenery he chews. The other is Gal Gadot's Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, who mostly just skulks around in revealing dresses in the sorts of places Bruce Wayne frequents, until the end of the film where she suits up to help the title characters defeat Doomsday in the film's second consecutive climactic battle.

Batman and Superman's first meeting comes at the end of a long, violent car chase, in which Batman kills so many guys with his Batmobile-mounted machine guns while trying to take a shipment of kryptonite from Luthor's paramilitary squad of bazooka-toting delivery men (Even though Batman put a tracking device on the shipment, so could presumably just show up to steal it peacefully, as he does later anyway). Superman ignores all the guys firing heavy ordinance, but instead wrecks the Batmobile and tells Batman to stop being Batman.

Then, they fight. It is a very long, very stupid fight. Luthor kidnaps Lois and Martha Kent (Diane Lane, reprising her role from Man of Steel), and gives Superman an hour to fly across the bay–Oh yeah, did you know Metropolis and Gotham City are on either side of a bay? You can literally see the bat-signal in the sky from the roof of the Lex Corp Tower. How have Batman and Superman never met? Superman should be zipping over there to capture all of Gotham's bad guys constantly. Anyway, Luthor tells Superman to fly the few miles to Gotham City and bring him Batman's head, or else Luthor will have Martha burned alive.

Superman opts not to use his super-senses to instantly locate his mother (although he does try threatening Luthor with his heat-vision first), but instead goes to ask for Batman's help. Batman is wearing a dumb suit of armor (one of several direct homages to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, the adaptation of which is apparently the movie Snyder would rather have been making), has some half-assed traps set up, and is waiting for Superman. By sheer coincidence, Batman decided to challenge Superman to a fight to the death the very night that Luthor decided to send Superman to fight Batman to the death. Supes tries to ask Batman about the whole helping-him-find-his-mom situation twice, but after he's interrupted by Batman's sonic weapons and machine guns, he decides to just give up and start throwing Batman through buildings.

Luckily Gotham City is completely abandoned! These two merciless assholes try to murder each other for what feels like about two hours or so (but is probably actually no more than ten to twenty minutes), and when Batman is finally ready to drive a kryptonite-tipped spear through an incapacitated Superman's face, Superman asks Batman to save Martha, and Batman loses his shit hilariously for a few seconds, screaming about Marthas (Adams' wet Lois shows up, to explain that Superman's mom's name is Martha...Say, Batman seems to think, we both have moms named Martha? Maybe we're not so different after all, you and I!).

This leads to the team-up, in which we almost see a cool Batman fight scene, but it's filmed incoherently and seemingly lit by a cell-phone, so it mostly sounds cooler than it looks. Good work, foley artists! It ends with Batman blowing up one of the kidnappers, which is the sort of thing Batman is well-known for doing. Superman confronts Luthor, who has a Plan B prepared. Luthor unleashes a Cave Troll borrowed form The Lord of The Rings movies!

After a long fight scene, it eventually mutates into Doomsday, and while it has Superman and Batman on the ropes, Wonder Woman finally shows up to a guitar solo to pitch in. What brought here there? Well, Batman emailed her Luthor's metahuman files prior to all the fighting, and there's a really head-slappingly dumb scene in which we watch Gal Gadot click on one file after another and literally watch teaser footage for future Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg movies...which is about as riveting as it sounds.

Wonder Woman uses her bracelets to block Doomsdsay's energy blasts, she uses her magic lasso to bind him and she generally livens up the movie for her few minutes of screen time, but that may just be because we haven't spent about two hours watching her glower and talk about, think about or commit murders.

Then things get really stupid, as Superman gives his life to take down Doomsday, and Luthor gets his head shaved by a prison guard (his exact crime is never specified, and it's hard to imagine what he arrested for and how he was convicted, as the only witnesses to any crimes he might have committed are either dead or Batman), and screams about Darkseid appearing in the Justice League movie, although he never uses the word "Darkseid," and, honestly, if you don't know your DC lore, I don't know what on Earth one would make of some of the foreshadowing; hell, I do know what the omega symbol means in the DCU and who the goggle-rocking bug-men work for, and it still didn't make any goddam sense to me in the context of this film. It's got to just seem completely random. They're not Easter Eggs, like Jimmy Olsen getting shot in the face was apparently meant to be; they're plot points and significant passages of the film.

Snyder seems to have flipped through The Dark Knight Returns, and saw a few images–"Talking heads in the media, Batman in armor to fight Superman, Superman gets skinny after being hit with a nuclear bomb, got it"–and half-listened to an assistant as they read the Wikipedia entry on "The Death of Superman" as he went to work on a stitched-together script that seems to have been composed entirely of scenes from scripts of films that were never made (And, in fact, a Justice League movie, a Batman vs. Superman and a Superman vs. Doomsday movie were all green-lit and in-development before abandoned at one point or another).

It's one of the worst films I've ever seen, and definitely the worst comic book superhero film I've ever seen, at least when one factors in the amount of money and talent marshaled and then wasted. The cast is actually pretty phenomenal–and I would love to see most of these folks play these characters–but here, they have nothing to do. The title characters mug at one another, Amy Adams offers exposition and absorbs water, Gal Gadot mo-caps for an action scene, poor Jeremy Irons doesn't even get to wear a tux or sass Master Bruce. As I said, only Eisenberg seems to have the least bit of fun, or to have even showed up to work.

As a fan, I'm about as excited for Justice League at this point as I was for Green Lantern 2 in 2011...based on the quality of this thing, I would imagine a Justice League movie and spin-offs featuring the cameo-ing characters in this to be about as likely as a Green Lantern 2 at this point, but there's been so much money poured into this thing, and Wonder Woman is already filming, so maybe the best one can hope for is that the DC Cinematic Universe films spawned from this pop cultural shared trauma will at least be better than Batman V. Superman.

And that, at least, is something to hope for–after all, it's not like Wonder Woman or Justice League or Aquaman or The Flash could possibly be worse any than this.

Deadpool: I've been bemused by the commentary on this film and its incredible (and certainly surprising) success, as some argue that the R-rating contributed to that success, while others argued that it wasn't the R-rating, but the fact that it stayed so true to the character.

What amused me about that line of argument is that Deadpool comics, of which there are several billion at this point, have almost never been R-rated, but rather exist in the sometime-tasteless and peculiar PG-13 of mainstream sueperhero comics, where there can be tons of violence, but no nudity and very limited swearing, with black-out bars and grawlixes in place of many of the worst bad words. As far as I know, the only Deadpool comics that could actually be considered the equivalent of an R-rated film are those that appeared on Marvel's Max imprint, David Lapham and Kyle Baker's 2010 maxiseries Deadpool Max (and a six-issue sequel series and a Deadpool Max-Mas Chrismas special). For the most part, the vast bulk of Deadpool's considerable body of comics are no more R-rated than the source material for the X-Men, Spider-Man or Marvel Studios movies are.

So what can the film's success be attributed to? Well, opening in February surely didn't hurt, nor did its all-around likeable, and totally committed leading man, nor its long-term and often clever marketing. And, of course, one shouldn't dismiss the fact that the character is extremely popular in comics circles now, his fourth-wall breaking nature perfect for film, and here's a crazy thought, the movie was actually pretty good. I think Deadpool's impressive–and, to other movie studios, enviable–box office was a confluence of hard-to-replicate factors finally falling in to place after a very, very long development process, and any studio or filmmaker who focuses in on the R-rating as the key to its success, and decides to have Jason Mamoa's Aquaman declare "Out-fucking-rageous!" in every scene or the next Spider-Man film set primarily in and around a strip club aren't exactly guaranteed Deadpool bank.

As to the quality, I was genuinely surprised by how good it was, and how much I liked it, particularly considering I am in no way anything approaching a Deadpool fan. It did suffer a bit from over-previewing all the good stuff, I think, and was still a remarkably straight forward, even generic superhero plot, but director Tim Miller and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick managed to do just enough differently to make it feel a lot fresher and more exciting on a first viewing than it will likely appear on later viewings.

Good-hearted mercenary-turned-hitman Wade Wilson meets and falls in love with Morena Baccarin, and all is going swimmingly until he is diagnosed with all sorts of terrible cancers. Feeling he has nothing to lose, he signs up for some horrifying experiments meant to torture the activation of the mutant "X-gene" in anyone who might have it (or kill them in the process) and it works! Ryan Reynold's handsome, smart-mouthed, pop culture-referencing, living episode of Family Guy gets Wolverine-level healing powers (which makes him into something of a literal cartoon character, at least in his ability to recover from grievous injury in the space of a scene change). The side-effect is that he gets very, very, very bad skin.

Bent on revenge for all the torture and the disfigurement, he begins killing and torturing his way through the local crime world in a series of increasingly better-made costumes in search of Ed Skrein, the mutant mad scientist what did it too him, who goes by the name "Ajax," but Deadpool only ever refers to as "Francis." It gets even personal-er when Francis kidnaps Baccarin's character.

So a pretty basic superhero origin story, complete with a save-the-girl climax. Deadpool differs in telling the story kinda sorta out of order, beginning with a big action scene, and flashing back repeatedly to show how Deadpool got to be Deadpool, while moving the revenge story forward. And then there's the swearing, the violence, the meta-jokes and the sense of humor; like, say, Guardians of The Galaxy or Ant-Man, this isn't just a superhero movie, it's a superhero comedy, albeit one with a higher amount of screen time devoted to comedy, and a constant deflation of almost every bit of melodrama that arises.

It's also got the X-Men, or apparently just two, relatively easy-to-afford X-Men, something which Deadpool mentions repeatedly, as when he visits the Xavier School and notes what a big house it is, but somehow it seems like the two of them are the only ones who live there. The two are CGI Colosssus, who is never shown not metal-ed up. He's had only brief appearances in the X-Men films, so I suppose fans might be a little disappointed that this is where he shows up and gets the most screen time, and he's reduced to a simple moralistic foil to Deadpool but, hell, he and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are key to the film's best scenes (NTW, played by Brianna Hildebrand, is a pretty delightful extrapolation. She's technically a Grant Morrison creation from early in his New X-Men run, but he basically just re-assigned the name of a Monster Magnet song to a teenage mutant, who gets killed in her first appearance; her appearance and powers from that comic are nothing at all like those of the character in the film. The filmmakers apparently just liked her name, and wanted to give Colossus and Deadpool a shared foil).

Almost deceptively simple, if there are lessons for future superhero filmmakers to take from Deadpool, they likely have with trying to do something different, even if that something different proves extremely minor (Swear words! Flashbacks! Making fun of the X-Men franchise!), staying as true to the character as possible in an adaptation (I think Deadpool may be the best example of costume and appearance fidelity for a comics-to-screen character) and, for God's sake, don't take yourselves or your film too seriously.

The Hateful Eight: I have to confess–I spent an inordinate amount of time counting characters throughout this film's runtime, and trying to suss out exactly which of the eight characters count as The Hateful Eight. Most of the time there are at least nine characters in the room that much of the film takes place in, and they come and go (And yes, this being a Quentin Tarantino film, much of them "go" by being rather brutally slain).

I also spent a lot of time trying to count Tarantino movies in my head, as this is, the opening credits say, "the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino."

And it is a Tarantino movie, maybe one of the most Tarantino movies, meaning there is a lot of violence, much of it directed towards women, there is sexual violence directed at both men and women, there is questionable, or at least deserving discussion, content regarding race, and some of these things overlap one another in particular instances and scenes.

It is also a film obsessed with film, full of references and allusions, and more than content to add to its runtime by spending minutes taking in the beautiful, if harsh, winter scenery and letting the actors all act their asses off. Most of this very long film consists of eight or so people holed up in a trading post, attempting to wait out a blizzard, and almost none of them are who they at first appear to be. The mystery component provides more than enough suspense to hold a viewer's interest, at least on a first viewing, as Tarantino allows his actors and fellow filmmakers to indulge in filmmaking.

Like just about everything Tarantino's done, then, this movie is probably not for everyone, and far more for those who share Tarantino's own particular interests and obsessions than any general audiences. I loved it; I would not be at all surprised if anyone told me they hated it, though.


DVDs

Batman: Bad Blood (2016): This typically truncated direct-to-DVD animated film is notable for its inclusion of Batman characters and plotlines of relatively recent vintage: Batwoman and her father Jacob Kane (2006), Dick Grayson reluctantly taking over as Batman for an MIA Bruce Wayne and teaming with newly minted Robin Damian Wayne (2009), Lucas Fox becoming the armored Batwing (2013) and minor villain The Heretic (2010) and still more minor villain Tusk (a single appearance in 2014). It's remarkable in that writer J.M. DeMatteis manages to assemble all of these disparate characters and weave them into a single, coherent narrative with more characterization and emotional depth than most of DC's similar animated films (which, to be honest, isn't that high a bar).

New villain The Heretic–redesigned poorly, on both sides of his mask–is consolidating Gotham's bottom-feeding supervillains, all of whom were apparently chosen by the filmmakers for their relative obscurity (Onyx, The Electrocutioner, Tusk, The Calculator, a never-named Hellhound), their necessity to the plot (The Mad Hatter, as mind-control is involved) or to give Batwing someone to fight (Firefly and Killer Moth, both of whom have major, high-tech upgrades, for aerial super-armor battles). Heretic is, of course, backed by a "surprise" villain, who is the exact one a Batman fan or reader would expect from a story prominently featuring Damian and The Heretic.

Trying to shut the new players down is new Gotham vigilante Batwoman, who is characterized a bit like early '90s Huntress, at least in terms of her willingness to use weapons far more deadly than Batarangs and fists (although Batwoman uses guns, rather than crossbows). She and Batman battle the allied villains together, and the Dark Knight goes missing in an explosion after throwing her clear.

Still missing after weeks, he's presumed dead, and so Nightwing returns to Gotham from Bludhaven, and he and Damian become the new Dynamic Duo. The Heretic's gang next attacks Wayne Enterprises, grievously wounding Lucius Fox, who was working on a high-tech, Batman-by-way-of-Iron Man suit, which his former Marine son Luke dons to help fill in for Batman.

This newly assembled, ad hoc Bat-Family fights crime, hunts for and ultimately rescues Bruce Wayne and then take part in a sprawling climactic battle in which the stakes aren't just Gotham, but the entire world. Why, they're so big, even Alfred Pennyworth has to get involved, showing off his pugilistic skills against The Calculator.

The action in the movie is truly impressive; this was, surprisingly enough, one of the best kung fu movies I've seen in a while, as by far the best fight scenes are the one-on-one, hand-to-hand battles, particularly capoiera-expert Hellhound's tussle with Grayson in a convent guarded by machine gun-toting nuns (referred to, of course, as "nunjas"), Grayson's climactic battle with a brain-washed Batman and, best of all, the Batwoman vs. Talia battle in which they fight with fists, feet, swords and a gun at point-blank range. Seriously, the movie is well worth it, just for the animated martial arts.

It was also my first exposure to Damian Wayne in a medium outside of comics (I skipped 2014's Son of Batman and 2015's Batman Vs. Robin, the latter of which was also directed by Jay Olivia), and I'll be damned if that little bastard isn't just as much fun animated as he is in comics.

The film suffers in the same ways that all of these direct-to-DVD cartoons do. It's too short to flesh much of anything out, and it feels like important passages that might be there in a "real" movie are missing (although, as I said, it feels more complete than most of the other of these things I've seen); it's special effects are occasionally disconcertingly cheap-looking (anything with a vehicle, basically); and the addition of random swearing just because the PG-13 rating allows for it seems juvenile (There's a brief scene where Black Mask, in a brief cameo appearance, declares that Gotham City is his bitch, to which Batman Dick Grayson responds that makes Black Mask his bitch...ugh).

Oh, and if you're wondering why I, a great fan of the easy joke, did not make one about the title of film, that's simply because the How It Should Have Ended folks beat me to it, in a much more elaborate way than I could ever have managed.

Be Cool, Scooby-Doo!: Spooky Kooky Fun! (2016): I was so enamored with the previous Scooby-Doo series Scooby-Doo: Mystery, Incorporated, perhaps best described as Scooby-Doo meets Twin Peaks, with an unprecedented amount of all-ages comedy and more distinguishable characterization for Velma, Daphne and Fred than the usually interchangeable characters ever get, that I was disappointed by the very fact that a new iteration existed at all.

Well, that was a mistake: Be Cool is fantastic. The producers have ditched the ongoing, season-long and series-long mysteries and refocused on stand-alone, discrete, episode-length mysteries only, but they've upped the comedy quotient. This may be the first Scooby-Doo series wholly focused on all-ages comedy, meaning the comedy is actually funny, for kids as well as adults.

The vocal cast remains the same as that of Mystery Incorporated, save for the fact that Kate Micucci is now in for Mindy Cohn to play Velma. The gang's fashion has been altered only very slightly, most notably Daphne and Shaggy from the waist down.

The character designs are radically different, with thin limbs, bigger, rounder heads, and big, round, eyes that seem to have a second set of eye-lids at the bottom of the eyes whenever they squint. There's something vaguely Family Guy-esque about the show, and I think much of it has to do with the characters' eyes, but some of the sense of the humor carries through too, generally in the way in which people behave completely randomly.

Velma is by far the most re-designed, having lost the last of her 1970s weight and become not just slimmer and shapelier (and more Linda Cardellinni-y) as she has been gradually becoming, most noticeably in Mystery Incorporated, but here she is downright pixie-isque, built like the other young lady to play her in live-action movies, Hayley Kiyoko (in Scooby-Doo: The Curse of the Lake Monster and Scooby-Doo: The Mystery Begins). This new, tinier build makes some of the Velma-specific gags funnier (as in an episode where the rest of the gang jumps atop her shoulders, and forces her to run for them all, carrying them, in reference to a gag from the original series, here turned into a running gag* in order to exhaust it). On the other hand, given the fact that there are so few young women (or women of any age) with bodies like the original Velma, it's kind of too bad that Velma keeps shrinking.

In terms of personality, Scooby and Shaggy are unchanged (gluttonous cowards), as is Velma (the smart one). Fred's love of traps from Mystery Incorporated has been exchanged for a love of the Mystery Machine, which here is a high-tech machine that can transform into a submarine or plane as needed (not unlike that of Shaggy and Scooby-Doo Get a Clue, the most radical departure of any Scooby show thus far), and rather than the big, dumb guy of the group (as in Mystery Incorporated), he's now the long-suffering leader, putting up with his friends' many quirks.

The most dramatic, and refreshing, personality reboot belongs to Daphne. Over the years, they've tried different ways to differentiate her from Fred and Velma (at the beginning of the show, the three were basically like Huey, Dewey and Louie, interchangeable to the point of being one person in three bodies). She's been clumsy, she's been rich and spoiled, she's been a martial artist. Here she's basically insane. In each episode, she adopts a new eccentricity or obsession.

In the first episode, she's made hand-puppets of herself and the rest of the gang. In another, she's taken to wearing a false beard. In another, an exhausted Fred asks if she's decided to do anything random and impractical, and she cheerfully responds, "No. But I have taken up falconry!"

As for the mysteries, I found them to be a bit easier to solve than those in past shows (I probably correctly figured out about 80% of these, which is much higher than my usual average), and the explanation sequences are quite thorough, elaborate and funny.

The monsters aren't particularly scary ones, and I was amused to see so many familiar ones. The opening sequence features The Space Kook clinging to the top of the Mystery Machine and Captain Cutler among the assembled monsters, and some of the monsters and ghosts they face are quite familiar in design to those from the original series, including the ghost of a baseball player and a yeti. One episode opens with a cameo of the ghost of Captain Cutler, who everyone–the gang, the police–abandon in mid-arrest when something more interesting comes up. I've only seen the handful of episodes on this two-disc set, but it looks like other familiar ghost and monster faces, or at least types, will appear throughout the series.

A series, it turns out, that may be the best so far, at least in terms of comedy, only some of which is self-referential. Like, say, Teen Titans Go!, this is a Cartoon Network cartoon that is literally fun for the whole family, and that is a phrase I have never once written, nor ever expected to.

Final Girls (2015): Not to be confused with Final Girl, which takes its name from the same horror movie vernacular term that this one does, this elaborately-premised melodramedy/horror parody is a head-shakingly ambitious commentary on genre cliches, nostalgia and the need to let go.

Taissa Farmigia plays Max Cartright, the teenage daughter of Malin Akerman's down-on-her-luck actress Amanda Cartright, whose main claim to fame was a 1980s cult-classic, Friday The 13th-style slasher flick called Camp Bloodbath. When Max loses her mom in a horrible car accident, she becomes incredibly withdrawn, and, naturally enough, is pretty sensitive when it comes to re-watching the movie in which her young mother's character gets brutally slaughtered.

Finally prevailed upon by Thomas Middleditch's Duncan, the horror movie enthusiast brother of Max's best friend Gertie (Allie Shawkat), to attend a special screening of the film, Max and company are soon exposed to deadly danger. A fire breaks out in the theater, the crowd panics, and Max picks up a handy machete, cuts a hole into the screen showing the film, and leads Gertie, Duncan, her love interest Chris (Alexander Ludwig who, oddly enough, also appears in Final Girl) and Chris's pill-popping Queen Bee ex-girlfriend Vicki (Nina Dobrev) through the screen to safety.

They end up, naturally, inside the movie itself, and after a little while to adjust to playing by being-in-a-movie rules–they can't get too far away from the set, if they miss an opportunity to "join" the movie, they have to wait the length of its runtime for it to start over so they get another chance to do so, etc–they realize they have to try to survive the experience with the cast of the original film, including Nancy, the character played by Ackerman's character, who looks and sounds just like Max's mother but isn't (Nancy, by the way, is the name of the final girl that stars in the comic book series Nancy In Hell, an elaborate set-up that hinges on the idea of the final girl) and some other '80s "teens," the most amusing of which is played by Adam Devine.

There are the expected jokes about the temporal culture clash between teens from the 1980s and the 2010s, like the dumb girl trying to stick a smart phone into a boom box, for example, and the expected jokes about lucid character trapped in movies, but the kids from the "real" world have the advantage of an expert on the film with them, and thus foreknowledge of everything that is going to happen.

Things, naturally, don't go according to plan, as he's the first to take a lethal blow from a machete, soon followed by the film's original final girl. It's up to Max then to try and get her friends out of it alive and, if she can, save her mother from this particular death.

That latter conflict makes this a weirdly layered film, as it's awfully serious and has a great deal of genuine emotional content for a movie of this nature. It never gets weirder than at its climax, however, when Malin's Nancy attempts to draw the slasher out of the woods by performing a strip tease, all the while making eye contact with her daughter.

Without spoiling too much, no "real" people who die in a movie actually die, as is always the case with movies (a fact that carries over to this movie's movie-within-the-movie), and the film retains a surprise, but perfectly appropriate ending, in which our heroes learn they aren't out of the woods just yet. After all, they made more than one Camp Bloodbath movie.

I'm not sure how well it works, given the different directions it goes in, and the inherent tensions in pairing parody and comedy like this with such an emotionally raw story, but it does work. I loved it.

Fly-Away Baby (1937): The second Torchy Blane film (see Smart Blonde, below) retains the cast of the original, and its essential pleasures. Glenda Farrell's girl newspaperman Torchy tricks her way onto police detective boyfriend Barton MacLane's crime scene and immediately takes lead on the investigation. This one involves a murder and jewel store robbery, and gets more complicated, with a few more bodies and a smuggling scheme soon becoming part of the story.

Amusingly, this plot hinges almost entirely on Torchy's voracious appetite and, in particular, her fondness for steak, as important clues are found in a steakhouse. There's a little too much time spent on comic relief character Tom Kennedy's Gahagan, MacLane's driver, as he takes a new job as a P.I. on the sly, and the race-around-the-world conceit may be a little too of-its-time to make all that much sense today. Three reporters from three rival newspapers are racing around the world via airplane, but since they are all passengers on the same flights, it's unclear how one wins or loses, unless they miss a flight, I guess.

Watching this, I realized that this first chunk of the Torchy Blane almost presaged a modern TV series in their production, as the first three films were all relatively short, featured the exact same cast in the same roles, and were all released within the same year. The following year would bring three more films, although one of them would feature new characters in the Torchy and McBride roles, marking a perhaps pivotal moment in the origin of Lois Lane.

Hollywoodland (2006): In preparation for the ludicrously titled Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Ben Affleck plays Batman, I finally watched the movie in which Affleck plays the other character in that particular conflict, Superman. Well, he plays George Reeves playing Superman on The Adventures of Superman, but hey, close enough. Part-murder mystery, part-conspiracy theory, part-biopic, Hollywoodland is a modern day noir film set in the real world of Hollywood, during the transition from its mythic Golden Age to that of the fallen, cynical, post-War America with its fracturing media landscape, wherein radio and the movies were no longer the only sources of shared fantasy.

I've been meaning to see it pretty much since it came out, but never got around to it. I wish someone would have told me that it not only featured Empire Records' Robin Tunney as fiery, femme fatale-type Leonore Lemmon (note the initials, naturally occurring in this real-life Superman story) and Beverly Hills, 90210 beauty Kathleen Robertson in a small role. Had I known that, I would have probably been in theaters on opening day.

Adrien Brody stars on down-on-his-luck private investigator Louis Climo, who sees the apparent–but highly suspicious–suicide of Reeves as a sort of big break and, hired by Reeves' mother to investigate it as a possible murder, begins trying to unravel what happened that night.

Director Allen Coulter (who worked in TV mostly before and after the release of this film) and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum flashback continually to tell Reeves' story in between the scenes of Climo's investigation, starting with Reeves meeting older, married woman Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM "fixer" Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). This is done in chronological order, for the most part, while Brody's Climo unravels various clues that lead in to each flashback.

There are only a few viable suspects, beyond the official gunman, Reeves himself. These are Lemmon, in some sort of crime of passion; Toni Mannix, reacting poorly to being dumped for the younger Lemmon and Eddie Mannix, sending employees to take out Reeves in revenge for hurting his wife's feelings.

The film dramatizes the death's possible scenarios, and never offers up a definitive solution to the mystery, but seems to cast suicide as the most likely explanation (it's the final, climactic dramatization), followed closely by Mr. Mannix ordering the killing (He kinda sorta confesses that he could and would do such a thing, and the most trustworthy character, the one who actually helps prove to Climo what a desperate a man Reeves had become, says he could see Mannix having been behind it).

In the years since, Affleck has had many more dramatic and lauded roles, but I was very impressed with him here, as he's got the required looks to play frustrated leading man-turned-TV star, and is a charming, affable presence throughout...except when he's succumbing to anger or depression.

There are actually quite a few funny moments, mostly stemming from the disconnect between Reeves and the character he played, and there's a half-obscured throughline about the tragedy of heroes being human, or, more broadly, our fantasies–be they escapism, or our ambitions for ourselves–being fragile, breakable things that are borne of tragedy and lead inevitably to still more tragedy.

Ironically, it may also be the very best Superman film I've ever seen, even though the Man of Steel's presence is a plot point and a metaphor.

...

So, the lady I watched this with thought it worth pointing out to me, and so I will point it out to you, that Affleck's and Lane's future roles in Superman films are illustrative of the double-standard when it comes to casting men and women of a certain age in such films. In this 10-year-old movie, the then-34 Affleck and the then-41 Lane played lovers (although Lane's character was meant to be a bit older than Affleck's in Hollywoodland). Flashforward a decade, and the now 43-year-old Affleck is playing Batman in Batman V. Superman, while the now 51-Year-old Lane is reprising her role as Superman's mom. In modern Hollywood, their eight year age difference translates into them playing characters from different generations**.

Never Cry Werewolf (2008): Writer John Sheppard seems like he deserves a slap on the wrist, or, at the very least, a severely judgmental look–complete with narrowed eyes, a raised eyebrow and a slowly shaking head–for this script, which goes so far in the direction of homage it skirts outright plot appropriation.

His inspiration is quite obviously 1985's Fright Night (the 2011 remake was still a few years off when this was aired on the Sci-Fi channel), which his script makes a few easy alterations to (changing the new neighbor who is actually a monster from a vampire to a werewolf, changing the gender of the suspicious teen) but otherwise keeps the same basic plot, up to and including recruiting a supposed expert from a TV show to help hunt the creature.

There are other elements that seem inspired by/borrowed from the long-in-development Wes Craven/Kevin Williamson Cursed (2005) and 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula and/or 1995's Embrace of The Vampire, but in a genre so rife with cliches and homages, it can be hard to parse precise sources of inspiration.

Aside from Fright Night of course, as this is just Fright Night with a werewolf.

Nina Dobrev stars as a high-schooler who lives with her single mom and little brother next to a long-vacant house. It has just been sold to a mysterious, supposedly sexy man with a motorcycle and particularly mean dog (Peter Stebbings, a then 37-year-old actor whose pairing with then 19-year-old Dobrev is more creepy than anything else). He moved in one night, when the neighborhood was blanketed in supernatural fog, and while all the ladies seem to think he's super-hot, and her little brother thinks he's super-cool, Dobrev's Loren isn't so sure, especially after she shakes his hairy-palmed hand.

She starts spying on him and compiling evidence of his werewolf-ism, even going so far is to break into his house at one point, but no one she tells believes her (which is where the title comes in; it's not a direct analogy to the fable, which would also have made a good plot for a werewolf movie, but it kinda sorta works).

Stebbings' werewolf Jared–not a much better name for a werewolf than Jerry is for a vampire–menaces Loren but doesn't kill her, because he believes she's the reincarnation of his past wife/mate, and wants to turn her into a werewolf too. She decides to stock up on weaponry at a local gun shop, where TV "celebrity" hunter Redd Tucker (Kevin Sorbo) is signing autographs, and she and her male friend (and the store) are attacked by Jared and his dog, actually a familiar. Attacking a gun shop, of all places, seems like a poor plan on Jared's part, but these good guys with guns don't get it together until near the end of the scene, when they start pumping bullets into the familiar, who naturally shakes them all off...along with its skin, revealing a cool-looking, if cheaply-rendered, skin-less dog monster.

From there, the rest of the film is concerned with a showdown between Loren and Jared, with the guys in her life each playing small roles, while she's the one who delivers the decisive blows...in a skimpy sports bra, the film's first and only foray into any real cheesecake.

Sheppard's script is refreshingly interested in the more obscure occult aspects of werewolf lore (compared to most films of its kind, anyway), and the werewolf is apparently of the man-in-a-suit variety, giving its scenes a sense of authenticity usually lacking in post-CGI monster movies. Director Brenton Spencer never shows the whole wolf, usually just showing its drooly-fanged face or claws, but the intimation is that he's a huge, black, bear-sized creature that goes down on his forelegs like a gorilla at times.

It's quite obviously not terribly original, and occasionally cheap-looking, but it's nevertheless a pretty decent monster movie of a kind I'm particularly interested in: Teenagers vs. monsters.

Smart Blonde (1937): In his new book Investigating Lois Lane, Tim Hanley cites fast-talking "newspaperman" Torchy Blane, the protagonist of this film and its eight sequels, as a large part of the inspiration for Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster's Lois Lane (In adition Torchy is played in one installment by an actress named Lola Lane), which is what lead me and my friend to checking this and Fly-away Baby (discussed above) out.

It's easy to imagine Torchy, played by Glenda Farrell, as a blonde Golden Age Lois, working at a different paper in a different city before moving to Metropolis to get a job at the Planet (and to dye her hair, of course). A brash and brilliant, she's got the observational skills and instincts of a great detective, and the street smarts to get through, around or over any obstacle she's faced with in pursuit of a story...which generally involves the solving of crimes.

Her partner in crime-solving is police detective Lieutenant Steve McBride (Barton MacLane), who she flirt/bickers with throughout the case (a typical, telling exchange has McBride scolding Torchy, "Why don't you stop trying to be a detective?" and her replying, "Why don't you start?"). He constantly tries to keep her out of his business, but it's apparent they need one another...he needs her for her smarts and detective ability, she needs him for his resources, the authority of his office and, occasionally, for muscle or the threat of muscle. Their romance is secondary to the point of sub-understatement, with much of the film's short run time having the apparently insatiable Torch asking McBride to take her out to dinner. Or just feed her. Or just let her eat. (It's a weird, cute little detail that is maybe the film's most engaging running gag...certainly funnier than the clownish antics of comic relief character Gahagan, played by Tom Kennedy.

As for the crime, it involves the murder of a nightclub owner, a shady legitimate businessman trying to become less shady and more legitimate, a few ladies, a drunk, disgruntled thug, some con artists and blackmail. It's essentially a hybrid screwball comedy/crime film, and it's a lot of fun. I would hope that anyone writing Lois Lane in the future would avail themselves of some of these old Torchy Blane flicks first, as her voice is that of an old-school Lois...like that of Superman: The Animated Series, but with a longer skirt, a hat and a growling stomach.


BOOKS

Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings (Llewellyn Publications; 1998): Something of a classic among UFO literature, this collaboration from writers and investigators Philip J. Imbrogno, Bob Pratt and Allen Hynek chronicled the mid-80s reports of large, silent, low-flying UFOs over the titular locale. The reports sound an awful lot like those of "The Phoenix Lights" (of 1997). They were consistently described as huge (with a football field being the usual unit of measurement), triangular or boomerang shaped and bearing various patterns of lights...and they were described a lot. Also like the Phoenix Lights, these were seen by hundreds and hundreds of people, of all walks of life and levels of education and areas of expertise, often in groups. Some witnesses would have their stories corroborated by others they had never met, who saw the same thing from a different place. Media outlets, police stations and other authorities were flooded with calls and reports. Pictures and videos were taken.

This–again, like the Phoenix Lights–seems like one of those cases that offers pretty unimpeachable evidence that UFOs are some sort of real, experiential phenomenon (Provided, of course, that everything in the book is true; I obviously didn't research any of this on my own, but, for the most part, the methodology seems sound from my extremely amateur point-of-view).

What was going on? No explanation was ever offered, at least none that held up to any scrutiny, and these seem to have been offered by beleaguered desk sergeants and dispatchers to get people to quit calling and quit asking, rather than as part of any concerted effort to keep the truth, whatever it might have been, from getting out or anything of that sort.

Adding a strange twist to an already strange story was the fact that several of the witnesses who were interviewed reported that the craft or crafts (or whatever they were) seemed almost to respond to their thoughts about them, as well as their actions. For example, if someone flashed their headlights at an object, it might change the pattern of its lights or flash a light back at them. But if someone saw an object moving father away and wish they could get a better look at it, the object would in some cases suddenly turn around as soon as the thought was thought, and drift back in their direction.

A handful of abduction reports are included, and they are all of the suspiciously typical sort...and, unfortunately, recovered via hypnosis. At least one of them was by a person who specializes in recovering details of alien abductions via hypnosis, which I think has been pretty thoroughly discredited in the years since those reports were first taken, or even repeated in this updated version, which continues to follow reports into the late '90s (and follows up with some of the witnesses).

At the end of the book are all sorts of charts and figures and scientific-looking (i.e. boring) back matter.

It's a fascinating, even addictive, read, despite a handful of dated and questionable inclusions.


AUDIOBOOKS

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein: As a writer, I don't mind confessing that I found myself furiously jealous throughout Carrie Brownstein's memoir about Sleater-Kinney. She's got a story to tell, obviously, and plenty of fun, funny and poignant anecdotes, but it's the way she tells them that makes this book such a thunderbolt of a read. She is a great writer, and she writes about music and elements of the coming-of-age in the 1990s experience better than just about anyone else I've read. And that's in addition to being a hell of a guitarist, a fantastic performer and one-third of one the greatest rock bands. She's also super-hot, and I imagine she must be a fairly decent actress, as while I've never seen Portlandia, it's been around for a few seasons now.

It's just not fair that one person can be so great at so many things!

I started writing and re-writing this section of this post over and over, as Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (which takes its title from the lyrics of "Modern Girl" off of The Woods) is one of those particularly challenging works: It's a great one, and one I'm really excited about, and one that I therefore want to give the review it deserves. But after a few drafts I had to remind myself that I'm not getting paid to write about that particular book, and this is just one section of one of those extremely long posts I assume (hope!) most of my readers just skim through, so I should probably just keep it as sort and sweet as possible.

As with Kim Gordon's recent Girl in a Band, Brownstein's book had an incredible revalatory component, as I knew next to nothing about Sleater-Kinney that couldn't be gleaned from their albums and the single time I saw them play live. For example, I didn't realize that Brownstein and Corin Tucker were dating around the time they founded the band and recorded their first albums (nor had I known Gordon and Thurston Moore were ever married until I listened to Gordon's also pretty great memoir). I've just never been that engaged of a music fan, where I was ever even terribly curious about the personal lives of the people that made the music as I was about the music itself.

There was a lot of information that was surprising, and some of it even shocking to me. First and foremost was the fact that Brownstein is as young as she is; she's only about two-and-a-half years older than I. We could have gone to high school together. And yet she was already on her third or so band and had recorded an album with the project that would define her career when I was still working on a bachelor's degree in English. I was shocked to hear her name bands that I've only ever heard on mixtapes traded with riot grrls in the zine scene (Team Dresch!), that she learned her first guitar chords from the guy from Sunny Day Real Estate, that Nirvana played at her school, that Sleater-Kinney opened for Pearl Jam and I missed it (I liked Pearl Jam a lot in high school, maybe as much as I liked Sleater-Kinney in my twenties and thirties, but never saw them play, because the band's principled stand against Ticketmaster made seeing a Pearl Jam show really goddam hard to do back when I would have most wanted to see them) and that, after Sleater-Kinney broke up, Brownstein through herself into volunteering at a local animal shelter.

That just strikes me as the most bizarre thing in the world. That you could walk into the right animal shelter and find a former (and future) rockstar volunteering there.

Brownstein is great enough of a writer that I would have been happy to read this in book form, rather than listening to the CD audiobook. As you can probably tell by how often Star Wars novels show up in these posts that I'm not too terribly discerning when it comes to audiobooks; I've much lower standards for what I'm willing to listen to during hours that would otherwise simply be wasted on driving than when it comes to what I want to spend time when I'm not stuck behind a steering wheel on (if you pay very close attention to the book-books that show up in these posts, they tend to be about monsters and the paranormal, for a pretty good reason. In fact, I only read Night Siege because I mistook it for another book that detailed what seemed like a coordinated UFO/Bigfoot flap by the mystery entities).

I'm glad I did listen to this in audiobook form though. Brownstein reads it herself, and I do so love the sound of her voice...reading as much as singing, it turns out. There's also some music in it; mostly some guitar from "Modern Girl," but there's a notable section where she plays a song she wrote in high school that she was holding up as something not that great and man, she was even good in high school. Fucking geniuses.

Anyway, this is a great book, and I'd kind of like to recommend it to anyone interested in modern music, from "alternative" music of the '90s to whatever genre one might classify Sleater-Kinney today...or to anyone interested in a creative pursuit...or to anyone interested in what it's like to be a woman in certain creative pursuits...or what it's like to have to interact from various angles and from various positions of powers with a "scene"...but I don't know, as I'm pretty biased to the subject matter, and was therefore interested in the book before I slid the first disc in. Suffice it to say that it is an extremely well-written book of an extremely interesting story, that of a talented musician who also happens to be an equally talented writer.

I've always been a Sleater-Kinney fan. Now I'm a Carrie Brownstein fan.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell: Sarah Vowell tackles the Revolutionary War in her usual manner, paying special attention to the endlessly amusing character of Lafayette, and the celebrity status he enjoyed almost immediately following America's achievement of freedom. It's been a while since I've listened to this one, so I'm afraid I will have to, by necessity, keep this review (or, more accurately, "review") short...much to your disappointment, I'm sure, as I know you all love reading every single word of these infinitely long posts.

It's pretty great, though, featuring the expected charms of a Vowell book. The ability to find a great deal of compelling humor in history, even the history we think we know well (certainly the Revolutionary War, more than the topics of her previous books, are things we all think we know pretty well–it is, at least, a subject thoroughly covered in school).

The two parts that stuck with me the most are Vowell's opening, which is basically a hilarious and persuasive essay about that which unites the United States more than anything else throughout our history (or freedom to, and willingness to, always disagree with one another vehemently), and the fact that, as a little boy in the French countryside, Lafayette used to wander around, hoping to run into the Beast of Gevaudan. That's the classic werewolf/historical monster that you'll constantly find reference to if you read much about monsters at all (as, um, I obviously do), which killed lots of people in 18th century France, and which there's still some speculation as to what the hell it might have been.

It's a pretty unusual intersection of U.S. history and historical cryptozoology, and there's probably a pretty fun story to be written about what might have happened had the eventual hero of the American Revolution had run into one of history's most famous "real" monsters...

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig: Or, as its listed on Amazon, Aftermath: Star Wars: Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens; that's three colons in a title! That's rare even for a superhero trade paperback.

This Chuck Wendig-written novel is the first*** produced for the new canonical Expanded Universe that details what happened after the end of Return of the Jedi and before the start of The Force Awakens. At this point in the timeline, we are much, much closer to the end of Jedi than the beginning of Awakens.

Contrary to how final and happy the ending of the first cycle of films might have looked, it turns out that you need to do more than destroy an enemy's greatest weapon and kill all of their leaders in order to vanquish a nation-state, or, in this case, a Galactic Empire. While reading (well, listening to) this, it became clear the degree to which the "new" Star Wars is/are informed by our new wars. The victory of the original trilogy wasn't such a clean cut and final victory of good over evil, but more a big, destabilizing blow, leading to a long, messy, confusing period in which two competing sides with competing ideologies struggle militarily and for the hearts and minds of civilians throughout the galaxy. No longer good vs. evil, it's now democracy vs. security, and no longer a series of winner-take-all battles, now it's a generational struggle.

There's also an extended scene in which Mon Mothma, leader of the Rebel Alliance, surveys the dead after a particularly deadly battle, while listening to two debating advisers about how to proceed: Pursue the remnants of the Empire and finish them off once and for all, or consider them defeated enough, and enter into a kind of detente. The fact that Awakens featured the successors of the two sides still in conflict ought to let you know what Mon Mothma chose. I'm not sure which is correct real-world, 20th century analogy here: Is this the first President Bush withdrawing from Iraq without capturing and killing Saddam and destroying his regime? Me, I'm about as anti-war as one can get, but her insistence that there had been enough death and bloodshed and ultimate decision to pull back struck even me as naive. Of course, I had already seen Awakens, so I guess I had the advantage of seeing how it all turned out.

That scene, by the way, is one of the many (many, many) "interludes" in Wendig's book, in which we essentially check in with various characters in various roles and strata of society throughout the galaxy in the immediate aftermath of the second Death Star battle. Most of these involve characters who are either brand-new or so minor I didn't recognize them, but there are a few of some prominence, like bounty hunter Dengar (locked in battle with a younger, more skilled bounty hunter) or Han Solo and Chewbacca deciding to ditch the mission for the alliance they were on in order to save Chewie's people. These are all brief, and Wendig's point seems to be to just give us a sort of snap shot of the state of the Galaxy during a particularly turbulent time, but several of them are almost certainly going to be followed up in future books (or maybe some of the others that are already on the stands; I don't know).

The main, non-interlude action takes place on the outer rim jungle planet of Akiva, where about a half-dozen prominent members of the Imperial power structure hold a secret summit to determine the future of the Empire...if there even is to be a future for them. Complicating matters for the Imperials is that a small band of their enemies are also on Akiva, some quite coincidentally. There's Jas, a Zabrak bounty hunter there to collect on the heads of the Imperials; Norra a former Rebel pilot who is returning to Akiva to find her son Temmin, an angry teenage mechanical genius who has reinvented himself as part of the local underworld after his mother abandoned him there; and Sinjir, an effete formal Imperial loyalty officer, who went AWOL during the Battle of Endor and is trying, very, very hard to lose himself in drink.

Their paths gradually cross and they form a sort of ad hoc rebel cell, aided by Temmin's refurbished Confederation battle droid "Mister Bones," re-programmed into a murderous maniac (That is, one of the "Roger, roger" droids from the the prequel trilogy, here covered in animal bones and tricked out with various weaponry, like a sharpened beak for stabbing).

I liked Mister Bones a lot, particularly as presented in the audio-book format, where his mechanized voice, a warped version of that familiar from the movies, takes on a slightly disturbing note as it slows down, speeds up and laughs while tearing bad guys apart.

The world-weary, often-drinking (if rarely drunk) and remarkably effective Sinjir is another great character. I spent the first few discs trying to think of who reader/performer Marc Thompson's voicing of the character reminded me of. I eventually settled on Johnny Depp, doing one of his very broad, Johnny Depp performances as a upper-class British bad-ass turned attempted hedonist. (Thompson gives Temmin a voice reminiscent of Billy West's Fry on Futurama, which was honestly a little distracting).

A few familiar characters make brief cameos–Leia, Wedge Antilles and General Ackbar, who gets to repeat his one big line from Jedi once, as well as say the word "trap" a couple more times. I suppose it doesn't count as a spoiler to tell you the good guys win, and (most) of the bad guys lose. I was personally glad that it ended with the ensemble cast deciding to stick together, as that promised future books featuring them, and I was more glad still when I noticed on Amazon that there's already a sequel on the horizon (The cover appears to read Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt, but Amazon lists it as Life Debth: Aftermath (Star Wars) (Star Wars: Aftermath Trilogy); looks like that is where they'll pick up on Han and Chewie's mission teased in a single interlude of this novel).

I had heard second-hand before reading this that it was "controversial," probably among the same a-holes who thought The Force Awakens was somehow anti-white because it had a black character in a much more prominent role than the black characters who appeared in the firs two trilogies, or thought it was deleterious in its "political correctness" because its protagonist was a woman instead of a man. That was, I heard, because it had gay people in it.

I was a little surprised then at how minor the "gay stuff" is in this book. It amounts to little more than the acknowledgement that there are at least three people in the Galaxy who are homosexual in their orientation. Temmin's aunts are referred to a few times, and appear in one relatively short sequence. Only one of the aunts is Norrah's blood sister; the other is her sister's wife.

It also turns out that Sinjr is gay. When Jas agrees to couple with him after their adventure is over and he recoils, she gets angry, thinking he has something against aliens. He explains it has nothing to do with her being an alien****, but rather that she's a woman. She answers with an "Oh," and, um, that's about it. So basically Aftermath just acknowledges that there are some gay folks in the galaxy. Not exactly revolutionary, let alone controversial: These guys have had laser guns, faster-than-light interplanetary space travel, flying cars and tractor beams for centuries, right...? Surely if they're that much more technologically advanced than us, they're at least socially advanced enough that two ladies can get married on one of the hundreds of planets in the galaxy, and at least one guy can be out, right...?

Star Wars: Dark Disciple by Christie Golden: At this point, I'm pretty lost in terms of what counts as Star Wars canon and what doesn't. This novel, by Christie Golden, is based on unproduced episodes of the Clone Wars TV show (the shitty looking CGI one I've yet to see an episode of, not the awesome "micro-series" that is probably the best Star Wars filmmaking of any kind). I believe that means it is still canonical, which would make sense, given how sharply it contradicts what I know of the lead characters from the Dark Horse comics I've read.

It's because of those Dark Horse comics that I was interested in this book at all, as the cover clearly shows Jedi Quinlan Vos, who John Ostrander and Jan Duursema's extrapolated from a background character in Episode I. Together they made enough comics featuring the character that he filled his own omnibus, Star Wars Omnibus: Quinlan Vos: Jedi In Darkness, and he played a fairly substantial role in the Dark Horse's Clone Wars series, also by the Ostrander/Duursema team (mostly).

The character's personality and mission are pretty much the same here as they were in the Dark Horse comics, although there's no mention of his apprentice Aayla Secura, and his former master has apparently been killed off before the start of this novel which, again, is based on unproduced episodes of the TV show.

The novel pairs him with Asajj Ventress, the one-time Sith apprentice who I am only familiar with from the micro-series (where she was awesome) and the Dark Horse Clone Wars (where she was less so), but apparently a lot has happened since, as she in, by the time of this novel, a bounty hunter with hair, who has had a falling out with Count Dooku.

The plot involves the Jedi Council deciding they should just assassinate Dooku in order to speed the war to a quicker end, and Obi-Wan has a bad feeling about that. They decide that Vos, an undercover expert, is best-suited for the task, and they suggest he befriend Ventress and maneuver her into helping him find and dispatch Dooku.

He does so, but something unexpected happens: The pair fall in love. Ventress trains him to use the dark side of The Force to make him strong enough to help her take out Dooku, and that doesn't go so well, with Vos eventually succumbing to the Dark Side and spending a lot of time at Dooku's side. Throughout much of the second half of the book, it's never entirely clear if Vos has really fallen, or if he has pretended to fall in order to get close enough to kill Dooku...and the mysterious other Sith.

Golden does a pretty good job of shaping what was obviously meant to be an episodic story into something more novel-like, although the ending really drags on for quite a while, as Vos and Ventress seem to flip-flop in their feelings about one another and what they really want to do.

I found Ventress' plan to kill Dooku pretty dumb. Instead of just sneaking up on him and stabbing him to death, she challenges him to a duel, and she and Vos lose the duel pretty spectacularly. That's, like, the opposite of an assassination attempt.

I do like both Ventress and Vos quite a bit, and Dooku's a cool character, too, so all in all, there are a lot of great characters in this book. Marc Thompson performs the book, and does his usual excellent job. He's able to do Ventress' deep, sharp, soft growl of a voice perfectly, as well as the silky, sonorous Dooku that the late, great Christopher Lee gave the character in the films. His Mace Windu had a curious, off-putting Southern accent for some reason, though.

There's an afterword by Katie Lucas, which at first annoyed me a bit when she was talking about how she got the opportunity to write for the TV show when she was still a teenager (Really? How ever did she earn such an opportunity?). But after a few minutes, she brings up how much she loved Asajj Ventress, and how the character provided a gateway for her into the Star Wars universe. Well, as a Lucas, she was pretty much born into the Star Wars universe, but Asajj Ventress made her feel a part of it, and excited her. It serves as a pretty good testimonial to the importance of characters in these sorts of shared universes (that is, the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the DC Universe, the Marvel Universe and...I can't think of any other fictional shared setting of their size and scope, really) that have something in common with would-be audience-members. Here it was Katie Lucas finding a female character who was as cool and as badass as any of the male characters–actually, probably a little cooler and a little more badass than almost all of the male characters.

This was meant to be Lucas redemption of the character, as she has her turn from the dark side to the good, and do a whole bunch of heroic stuff before her story ends. I suppose opinions will vary over whether it would have been better had this story arc been able to play out on the TV show or not, but I can't imagine it would have been handled as well as it was here in the novel, which naturally has more space than the TV show, and can tackle more mature subject matter than they would have or could have on the cartoon show.

Thomas Jefferson and The Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager: Something felt a little off about Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger's book about a mostly-forgotten military conflict at the dawn of America, as the young country faced one of its earliest foreign policy challenges. I say mostly-forgotten, but more accurately might be "mostly never taught," as American merchants, their fledgling navy and then-president Thomas Jefferson were dealing with the predation of pirates associated North African Barbary state was happening at the turn of the 18th century into the 19th, a time when most American history classes switch their attention from the Revolutionary War to the domestic political and economic struggles of the then-new American state.

I thought the authors made a little much of the fact that the pirates and the leaders of the Barbary states were all Muslim, as if that were they're defining feature, and perhaps in some nebulous way the source of the conflict, rather than financial. Their professed religion may have indeed been Islam, but Kilmeade and Yaeger don't exactly keep referring to the Americans as a country of Christian denominations, deists and Freemasons, or to Anglican England or Catholic France. There's something uncomfortable about the suggestion that this is the beginning of America's conflict with Islam, which is of course silly. As the publishers will point out, this is nearly forgotten history, and, as I just mentioned, it's not exactly something rising to the level of, say, the Teapot Dome scandal in American classrooms. To suggest that it's the first battle in a centuries-long conflict with radical Islamic extremists is...well, I'm sure there's an audience for that in America, but there's no reason to believe that is the case. This is just one conflict that happened to occur between America and Muslim powers, and it seems to have had a hell of a lot more to do with money than religion or politics.

What bugged me the most, however, was the way Kilmeade and Yaeger made much of the Barbary pirates taking captives and forcing them into slavery. They present letters and journal entries from American and other Westerners forced to endure slavery, which was regarded as many back home as a great and unforgivable evil from which their countrymen and allies must be rescued.

The irony, of course, is that America was keeping thousands and thousands of its own slaves and had, in fact, built a significant portion of their economy on slave labor. Hell, President Jefferson owned slaves. The authors don't draw attention to the essential hypocrisy of the outrage over keeping white guys slaves, while black men and women were enslaved in astronomical numbers as a matter of course.

There are reasons why the men of that time might have thought that way, rationalizations they held that black people were suited to slavery while white men were not, but as that disconnect isn't even pointed out, naturally no context is given.

What bugged me the most about the book, however, was Kilmeade's reading. The co-author reads the book himself, and he does so in a loud, excited voice that reminded me of a sports commentator. It was the first time I've listened to an audiobook and considered stopping during the first disc specifically because the voice of the reader got on my nerves, but, as is always the case, I got used to the voice after listening long enough.

It's an all-around rather rousing bit of history as adventure, although it seems pretty amateurish as a work of history, with somewhat spurious political motivations, even if the suggestions of agenda come mostly through sins of omission rather than over-editorialization.

It wasn't until just this very moment that I discovered who exactly Kilmeade was, which explains his delivery as well, perhaps, his political motivation in certain areas: He is one of the Friends of Fox and Friends, hosts a radio show for Fox and has a background in sports radio.

The Vatican Prophesies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions and Miracles In the Modern Age by John Thavis: John Thavis' immaculately researched and written book addresses the most fantastic elements of the Catholic faith, those which have historically been part of the church in varying degrees of importance but can now prove quite troubling. You know, miraculous relics, Marian apparitions, exorcisms and the like.

In the 21st century, crying or bleeding statues and the miraculous intercession of the departed faithful can prove not just uncomfortable, but dangerous for the Church, which has to investigate and ultimately determine whether or not, say, The Virgin Mary is really appearing to someone...or if that person is faking it, or if they are suffering from hallucinations or if they are being duped by the devil. If the church makes the wrong call and declares a hoax genuine, only for it to be proven to be a hoax a few years later, they look bad–and it can cause damage to the faith. Similarly, the church leadership is often reluctant to embrace "new" miracles and signs and wonders, because that age is supposedly passed, and a true believer really shouldn't need to see the sun dancing in the sky to come to Christ.

Thavis breaks various elements of The Vatican's relationship with the supernatural in the modern age into broad categories, and along the way we meet some extremely interesting individuals from both within the Vatican and without, including a guy whose job it is to make holy corpses look less-corrupted than they actually are when they are publicly presented, and a lay professional miracle-hunter, who helps advocates for the sainthood of a particular individual prove that the departed has the requisite miracles to his or her names.

Of greatest interest to me personally was a section devoted to the apparitions of Medjugorje, as I had read a book purchased from the lobby of a Catholic church as a child and, well, Thavis' take is very different than that offered by the other, which indicates the experiences are much (much, much) more subjective, and Vatican Prophesies also reveals one of the secret prophecies the Blessed Virgin supposedly shared with the children...and other, similar long-secret prophecies, which turn out to be a little on the disappointing side, given how innocuous they are.

There are subjects I would have liked to read a little bit more about (conspiracy theories about the Vatican, the church's ideas about the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life), and some I wouldn't have minded having read less about (relics), but honestly, each of the half-dozen or so categories of the supernatural and the Catholic church's strategies for addressing it could easily buttress a book-length discussion. This was an all-around fascinating read.*****



*Hey, it's a running gag about running! Neat!

**Actually, I wrote those few paragraphs on Hollywoodland before actually seeing Batman V. Superman, in which it turns out Batman is supposed to be quite a bit older than Superman, so maybe Batman and Martha Kent are supposed to be about the same age in this. Hell, Batman even calls Superman "son" at one point.

***The first for adults, anyway. And the first for adults that Iknow of.

****As I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before, it seems really weird that, in the Star Wars universe, human characters are called "human," and every other sentient, humanoid species is referred to as "alien." I guess I don't know how evolution works in this particular galaxy or anything, but it seems like the galaxy is lousy with humans, and they sprung up on a bunch of different planets independently, rather than there being one human "home world" as there is with, like, the Wookies. In a setting where everyone is from different planets, what makes one race or species an alien and another one not...? It's all about perspective, right...? Surely the Rodians or Twyleks or whoever would consider humans–and anyone else different from them–alien...?

*****Listen. Whatever.

5 comments:

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

I'd always assumed that there was a human homeworld in the STU, but that humans had had space travel for so long that they'd colonized multiple other worlds and forgotten which of the worlds they lived on was the one they were originally from.

My No-Prize for the "alien" thing is that the Star Wars characters aren't really speaking English, they're speaking some kind of space language and "alien" is a liberal translation of some word that more closely translates to "nonhuman."

Brian said...

"...just as there is an implied cycle of Batman films that might explain things like why Wayne Manor is now a burnt-out ruin and Wayne and Alfred apparently live in the Batcave drinking heavily together all the time..."

Even though the movie showed them living in another building the larger property (a lakehouse, I suppose?), I personally love this idea. I'm suddenly picturing the two down there with a bunk-bed, Alfred blitzed on gin and crying about Master Bruce not giving him any grandchildren...

Unknown said...

You must have seen another film called "Batman v Superman" because the one that I saw was a terrific film that actually pushed the genre beyond the formulaic banality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films of the past almost-decade (I've tried re-watching some of the MCU films post-BvS and they literally put me to sleep).

Daniel

Caleb said...

Evan,

You're right! They're not speaking English, they speak...um, "Basic," the novels I listen to always say. I just read/listened to a pretty awesome book (which I'll cover in the next of these columns) called Luke Skywalker Can't Read, and author Ryan Britt writes about how everyone in the Star Wars universe is functionally illiterate. But he points out that the "language" of Star Wars, at leas the written language, was invented for role-playing games and is called...I have to google the spelling..."Aurebesh," which is what is on Poe Dameron's outfit in Force Awakens and which the futzed-with version of New Hope changed the English word "Tractor Beam" into. So yeah, maybe there's an Aurebesh term for "not human" that translates into Basic which translates into English as "alien."


Unkown/Daniel,

Maybe! Did you see The Batman/Superman Movie: World's Finest, the 1997 animated film? Because that one was awesome.

Unknown said...

I did see "World's Finest." It was good (except that I cannot stand Mark Hamill as The Joker). "BvS" was better. Not taking the same tonal or narrative approach as "World's Finest" does not disqualify "BvS" from being a good movie (or vice versa). Both approaches are equally valid. Half of the criticism I've read of "BvS" is of the "That's not the way I would have done it" while the other half is of people who clearly weren't paying attention to what was onscreen (probably because they were focused on the mental checklist in their heads of what the movie *should* have been doing instead).

Daniel