Saturday, January 23, 2016



Krampus: It's great to see the hairy, horned holiday monster that Monte Beauchamp called "The Devil of Christmas" in his influential collection of postcards finally get a big-budget, feature film. And better still that said film is a holiday horror comedy, an appropriate genre mash-up for a season which hasn't generated much in the way of watchable horror films in the past (The Ghost of Christmas Future scenes in some of the better Christmas Carol adaptations aside). It's also a tone that is well-suited to injecting some much-needed acid into the treacly Christmas movie genre (I still dream of a Hallmark Channel romantic comedy A Krampusnacht Kiss).

Director Michael Dougherty and his two co-writers have a rather compelling premise, which by mass entertainment necessity gets severely watered down. Opening with a slow-motion, Black Friday-like big box store riot set to a Christmas carol, the Krampus is positioned as a sort of avenging Christmas angel, whose righteous wrath is more than well-earned by the increasingly negative ways in which we "celebrate" Christmas. Watching the rioters, it seems like the Krampus should have plenty of work to do, and it would be easy to cheer for a Devil of Christmas coming to punish us all for our Christmas sins.

Now a monster movie in which the monster is the hero isn't unheard of or impossible, but you always at least have to have a point-of-view character, or a "final girl" to triumph, and so we need protagonists. The writers and actors all do a pretty fine job of making them seem like unpleasant people, with even the nicest among them having at least one foible, but pains are also taken to show their redeeming qualities, and that they are thus redeemable. And so the film lacks a sort of black-and-white, naughty/nice morality, making for a confused film.

A few nights before Christmas, young Max (Emjay Anthony) laments the state of his family's Christmas: His workaholic father (Adam Scott) and Martha Stewart wannabe mom (Toni Collette) and teen sister are too self-involved, and they seem to be drifting apart from him and from one another. Only his ancient German grandma Omi (Krista Stadler) seems to have the good old-fashioned Christmas spirit.

Tensions get higher when Collette's sister and family arrive, consisting of gun-nut conservative lout David Koechner, a brood of terrible children, a bulldog and a beligerent aunt. The dinner table culture clash is straight out of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, but slightly less broad and much less gentle. When one of the bullying little girls reads Max's earnest letter to Santa aloud in front of everyone, he vengefully tears it to pieces...and inadvertently summons the Krampus.

The film's conception of the folkloric character and old-school postcard star as "the shadow of St. Nicholas," is a pretty broad departure from the original, Old World stories, where the Krampus punished bad kids by beating them with a stick and, in the worst cases, tossing them in his wicker backpack to haul them off to Hell on Krampusnacht (December 5). Here he's more of an evil opposite of Santa, down to the slightest detail.

His exact appearance is kept fairly hidden until film's end, but from afar and in silhouette he resembles nothing so much as one of the wild things from Spike Jonze's 2009 Where The Wild Things Are in a dark and dirty Santa robe. Doughterty gives him one-for-one resemblance to Santa, and so he's accompanied by evil gingerbread men (there's actually already a horror movie series revolving around a killer cookie), evil toys (resembling those that Jack delivered in The Nightmare Before Christmas, only toothier and droolier), scary (but inanimate) snowmen that lay siege to the house and, almost as an afterthought, elves and some sort of scary, sleigh-pulling steeds.

The Krampus krew pick the characters off one by one, generally in a set-piece, and the filmmakers cycle through several familiar-from-other-horror movies scenarios. With too many ideas to use, certain elements enter only as the film reaches its close, and therefore don't get much in the way of room to breathe. The elves, for example, are pretty scary; short-statured troll-like creatures wearing ancient-looking, antique wooden masks over whatever their true faces look like.

The ultimate climax of the film has Max facing the Krampus, whose true form is never truly revealed. In a weird touch, it wears a Santa Claus mask over its face, and its long, curving horns protrude from the hood of his robe, so all we know for sure is that it's big and scary, with long-nailed fingers and huge goat hooves in place of feet. That final bit actually is true to the true spirit of Krampusnacht, with Krampus having packed Max's family in his sleigh, preparing to take them to hell.

The ending is a pretty neat one, which I won't spoil, even though I guess I've already spoiled plenty. It has the typical horror movie ending of "But wait, it's not over yet!" and a typical scary Christmas movie ending, right out of A Christmas Carol.

Shaggy, rough around the edges and bearing lots of room for improvement, it's a well-intentioned film, and one with lots of cool designs, particularly when it comes to the title character. There's also a pretty bravura sequence in the middle, when Omi tells of her own first meeting with The Krampus, which is rendered in Burton-like animation.

The Peanuts Movie: My initial reaction to news of a computer-animated Peanuts movie, which I first learned of upon seeing a poster in the lobby of my local movie theater, was a mixture of confusion, alarm and revulsion–that latter having to do mostly with the fact that, although Charles Schulz's comic strip characters have been regularly starring in animated specials of all sorts for decades, they are the most two-dimensional of 2-D characters. Realism can break them. The few designs I saw at first had (gulp) texture; Snoopy had fur.

Well, the trailer allayed many of my concerns; sure the pop music seemed off and wrong, but the characters looked and sounded right, and I was happy to see Schulz-like drawings appear in a thought bubble next to Charlie Brown's head as he thought about what a loser he was.

"Pleasantly surprised" is probably the best way to describe my reaction to the actual film, which I was eventually excited enough to see that I was at the theater on opening night.

Unfortunately, between then and now, I made the mistake of reading some reviews of it, and two were particularly spot-on, offering observations I couldn't make any better myself.

Here's Alan Scherstuhl of The Village Voice:
[T]he news, for the most part, is good: The Peanuts Movie is much closer in spirit to Charles Schulz's half-century comic-strip masterpiece than, say, new episodes of The Simpsons are to the spirit of Matt Groening.


What's surprising — even wondrous — is how often Schulz's precisely crooked line work informs the big-budget gloss...Congratulations to director Steve Martino and his team: When's the last time a computer-animated feature showcased the power of cartooning?


The title card claims this Peanuts is "by Schulz," but there are voices here besides his. What matters is that his is honored — and that this is as sincere a pumpkin patch as Hollywood can grow.
And here's the last bit from Jesse Hassenger's A.V. Club review:
Doubtless some hardcore Peanuts fans will shudder. But this movie hasn’t been made exclusively for adult nostalgists, and is something of a gift for its newest, youngest potential fans. A bigger-budget Peanuts is still far more idiosyncratic than almost anything they’ll see at a movie theater this year.
And that really rather summed it up for me. Taking into account that this was not a movie made for me personally, I can't complain overmuch about what seemed out-of-place to me, like Charlie Brown wearing long pants, or all the kids seemingly being in the same class, the inclusion of Fifi, the shwoing of The Little Red-Haired Girl on-panelscreen, the one pop song that made it into the film, or the several elaborate, chaotic, slapstick "action" scenes.

To my surprise, it sounded not only right, but perfect, right down to Snoopy and Woodstock's growls and twitterings, which I had forgotten the exact sound of prior to watching this–apparently, they used archival recordings of the late Bill Melendez, who voiced the pair in past specials. Also in keeping with Peanuts animated tradition, they cast actual little kids to voice the characters.

While there was texture and the suggestion of a third-dimension throughout, every piece of clothing and object looked like the ones that Schulz would have drawn; the lettering, the expressions, occasional sound-effects and dotted's really remarkable how much of the movie looked like Schulz himself had somehow drawn it, and it was translated into 3D and brighter-than-any-Sunday-page brilliant color through some form of magic.

The characters all look, move and emote like they did in the comic strip, and in an age where big Hollywood studios may or may not deign to credit the artists who created four-color superheroes raking in blockbuster billions, that reverence for Schulz's work seems more rare and remarkable still. I can't imagine this will replace It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas or anything, but my goodness, despite the seemingly sacrilegious application of computer animation to the pen-and-ink Peanuts, I don't think there's been a cartoon adaptation yet that captured the look of Schulz's art as well as this.

This should be the standard by which all other comic strip-to-film adaptations are measured.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Under constant speculation, discussion and dissection for well over a year now, and with the most aggressive marketing for anything I've ever seen, I was already pretty sick of the new Star Wars movie a week before opening day, and part of my decision to see it as soon as I possibly could had more to do with getting it over with than with satiating my anticipation. Not only is the Internet full of Star Wars–as it always is, but now more intensely than usual–but since at least this summer I haven't been unable to enter a book store, comic book shop, big-box retailer or grocery store without seeing the Star Wars logo and a cavalcade of the franchise's characters a good half-dozen times per trip. This holiday season, the masked face of Kylo Ren has crossed my periphery vision more times than that of Santa a factor of 1,000 or so. (And as for the so-called "Reason for the Season"...? Well, unlike The Beatles, Star Wars actually is bigger than Jesus).

Given all the build-up, it was probably always going to be impossible for this particular film to live up to that particular hype and so, quite naturally, I found myself terribly disappointed in it. In fact, I found myself surprised by my level of disappointment. Well-made at every level of execution, it was a solid film, but I felt almost nothing approaching excitement while watching it, and rather than firing my imagination, I felt my imagination being systematically shut down as I watched. Workman-like and safe, The Fore Awakens was solid but dull; a sturdy chair from a talented craftsman, rather than a work of art by an inspired (or mad-with-power) genius.

Director J.J. Abrams seems to have not only heard all of the criticisms and complaints about the second George Lucas-helmed trilogy (Episodes I-III), but listened to them and took them to heart. As a result, he seems to have over-corrected, resulting in a film single-mindedly intent on giving fans what they say they want (I have a felling that if a fan community committee were allowed to put an Episode VII together by voting on every aspect, they might have come up with something similar). In fact, there's so little that's actually new in the film that there are times it feels like a franchise reboot/remake more than a new chapter in an ongoing saga.

Surely, the plot will sound familiar, at least in its broad strokes: In order to keep a bit of vital information out of the hands of a black-caped villain and his storm troopers, a rebel agent gives it to a cute little bleeping droid, who heads out across a desert planet. The droid is found by a Chosen One-style character, who endeavors with a rag-tag group to get the info where it needs to go. There's a cantina full of aliens and silly music. The girl gets captured, and a rescue mission is launched. The bad guys have a planet-sized sphere of death capable of obliterating planets, and they plan to use it on the good guys...unless a daring raid can shut down the force field in time for a squadron of X-Wings to get to the space station's weak spots and blow it up. There's a "surprise" revelation of a character or two's parentage.

Obviously I'm picking and choosing here, but it's remarkable how little is new in this film, in terms of its background and milieu. The Empire is now The First Order (not The Second Order?), and they've updated their fashion a bit (the Stormtroopers get new helmet designs, the Imperial Officers wear black uniforms instead of gray), ruled over by a mysterious old scary man and a Darth Vader-type in Kylo Ren. The Rebel Alliance is now The Resistance, and they're pretty much just as they were when Return of The Jedi ended, save for the fact that some of their X-Wings, like some of the TIEs, have gotten new paint jobs.

No new ships, no new aliens of note, no new creatures or monsters of note, no new settings, as Abrams even cycles through those of the original trilogy, albeit with different names for the planets: Desert, snow, forest.

Some of the characters are new, of course. There are our heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), a mysterious, desert-dwelling scavenger and Finn (John Boyega), a defector from the First Order. They're pursued by Kylo Ren, the new Force-wielding bad guy trying to follow in Vader's footsteps (I thought I'd get used to his sword, but I never did; it's not that I object to messing with light sabers, as I think the personalization of them is actually really cool, I just don't like that particular innovation), and Captain Phasma, who appears to be the leader of the Stormtroopers or something (She was surprisingly non-present in the film, actually; she probably had about half as many lines, if that, as Peter Cushing had in the original Star Wars, and it's not like Grand Moff Tarkin is anyone's favorite Star Wars character).

The film comes to life whenever Oscar Isaac's Rebel Resistance pilot Poe Dameron is on screen, as he, like Boyega's Finn, at least has a sense of humor and tells jokes. Ironically, it also comes to life when Harrison Ford's Han Solo and Chewbacca arrive to recapture their Millennium Falcon from the heroes. This is about the point when the film stops being a new film and starts to coast on references–some blunt references, other slyer scene re-creations–but it's also where it's most fun, with Old Man Solo even more cynical and acidic than Young Han Solo, and I enjoyed he and Chewie's old married couple act.

The other Original Trilogy players who appear at all are mostly just cameo-ing. Carrie Fisher's Leia probably has the biggest role of any of them after Han and Chewie, but she's basically here reduced to Mon Mothma with a back-story. Even second trilogy limelight hogs R2-D2 and C-3P0 are barely there, although the latter's brief reunion with Han was pretty fun.

It's all terribly predictable, though, with even what is supposed to be a pretty big revelation being dropped causally and early (And reflective of the Expanded Universe; in fact, it was so close to an aspect of the Expanded Universe that I was actually actively annoyed that they changed the character's name).

I think Abrams did a real disservice to the franchise–and I may be alone, or alone-ish for thinking so–by retreating so far from Lucas' previous set of films. People complained about all the politics in Episode I, for example, so here there are no politics, to the point that I was a bit confused that nothing had changed since the end of Jedi, just the names of the two sides of the war (The ending of the fiddled-with, re-release of Jedi made it pretty clear that the Empire was kaput galaxy-wide, what with all the people cheering on all those planets while the song-that-replaced-the-Ewok-song played); the crawl doesn't even really mention what the deal is in the galaxy these days (There are a few mentions of The Republic, but they apparently get Alderanned by the new Death Star 3.0). The name "Resistance" seems to imply that Leia and company are still resisting the rule of...something. The First Order? Maybe? I don't know.

More importantly, Abrams and company steered clear of Lucas' crazy-man ambitions and wild sense of world-building evidenced in the previous trilogy. There were a lot of bad things about those movies, but, say what you will about them, they didn't look like anything that came before, including the films they were tied to, and every frame was stuffed (okay, sure, yes, over-stuffed) with CGI-baroque sci-fi filigree: Sets and ships and aliens and droids and creatures and technology.

But even compared to the original trilogy, The Force Awakens still seems overly safe: Empire Strikes Back and Return of The Jedi each had exciting new set-pieces and settings (Empire had the Wampa and Tauntauns on icy Hoth, and that amazing AT-AT battle scene; it had Yoda and Dagobah; it had Lando and Cloud City; Jedi had Jabba and his Palace, the speeder bike chase on Endor and the battle with the Ewoks and...okay, then it repeated the Death Star sequence from the first film...which actually makes it puzzling that Abrams would go back to that well again).

My hope is that The Force Awakens is just Disney's film-length reassurance to fans that this not going to be three more Phantom Menaces–although I don't know why they need bother; I think the last decade or so have proven that Star Wars fans will take whatever we get–and that the next two films will see something new happening, and something with a semblance of a story to it. As is, I found this inoffensive in terms of quality, but also completely uninteresting.


All that said, here are the things that I did like: 1.) Female protagonist, helping balance the (film) franchise's lack of Women Who Aren't Carrie Fisher Or Natalie Portman (and the pointed way in which Abrams and company turned her from The Princess Who Needs Saving into The Princess Who Saves Herself And Beats Up and Yells at The Guy), 2.) Black Protagonist, so now Lando Calrissian is no longer the only black man in the post-Clone Wars galaxy (Rest In Peace, Mace Windu), 3.) That part where Kylo Ren caught the blaster bolt in mid-air with the Force and just fucking held it there for the length of an entire scene. I've watched a lot of cartoons, read a lot of comics and listened to a lot of audiobooks set in the Star Wars universe at this point, but I don't think I've ever seen that particular application of the Force, so good job on that one, Abrams!) and 4.) While it was incredibly heavily telegraphed in the minutes before it happened, I was still pretty surprised that they went through with the death that they did.

So far, I'm not so sure this particular movie was worth ditching the Expanded Universe over (Like, I think I might have preferred a Dark Empire movie myself, but I guess everyone's too old for that now), but, like I said, I hope this is just the safe, boring prologue to the interesting stuff that will follow in VIII and IX.


Backcountry (2014): Writer/director Adam MacDonald's first feature film is carefully crafted to suggest a particularly well-made horror film; the lack of soundtrack, the suggestive dialogue and glances, the occasionally suggestive lack of dialogue all establish a tone of coming impending dread. In fact, the film's first half is so like that of a horror movie that when our protagonist, attractive but personality-free urban couple Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop, hear noises outside their tent or in the darkness beyond the light of their camp fire, it would be easy to imagine they're being stalked by some kind of monster or killer...if you haven't already read the back of the DVD, or examined the cover too closely.

It is, in fact, a more mundane, but much more dangerous and realistic, thing following them through the woods: An aggressive black bear. Extremely straightforward in its plot, the film tracks Peregrym and Roop's camping trip in a national park he used to spend a lot of time in, and now arrogantly believes he knows just as well as he used to. In fact, he's so confident he knows his way around that he even takes her cellphone away from her and refuses to bring a map with them (Could something bad happen? I think something bad could happen!).

They face minor-ish hardship, including a visit from extremely off and aggressive Irish (?) woodsman played by Eric Balfour, until the inevitable happens, and Roop gets them extremely, hopelessly lost. And then there's that bear.

MacDonald wrings an awful lot of suspense out of the earlier parts of the movie, and a particularly tense scene in which the couple sleep in their tent, completely unaware of the shadow snuffling around the outside of the thin plastic fabric, which the viewers can see clearly, in a sort of classic shout-at-the-screen scene. When the bear finally attacks, it's a pretty shocking scene, in its shakey-cam footage, moments of blacking out and its terrible gore. Climaxing early though, once the couple is parted violently, there's not much to do but follow the survivor's feverish, silent stumbling back to civilization, and wonder if the bear's hunger is sated yet or not (It is).

It's am effective, if somewhat empty, survival thriller, with little to say beyond the obvious about human arrogance in the face of nature, and how all our civilization doesn't do us much good when we're face-to-face on carnivores on their home turf.

Strangely enough, the film parallel's Bobcat Goldwaith's superior found-footage film Willow Creek (discussed below) in several ways, with several scenes and at least one exact plot point in common.

Eden (2014): Because Jessica Lowndes, that's why.

Lowndes and Leore Hayon play the daughters of U.S. soccer coach James Remar, who are on the team plane ride home from victory in the World Cup in Brazil when their plane goes down in a sudden and violent crash near a tiny island with no real natural resources. The girls are among the survivors, including about a dozen hot, fit, usually shirtless young men and the team trainer Sung Kang, who finds himself forced into the position of field surgeon and triage doctor.

When protagonist and team captain Slim (Nate Parker, who also gets a "story by" credit) loses consciousness for a few days, leadership is usurped by Andreas (Ethan Peck), who is quick to suggest and institute the harshest practices in order to ensure the survival of the group as a whole, including cutting off food and water rations to the severely wounded. Everything that you might expect to go wrong does, in addition to a few things you might not, like the discovery that part of the island was mined in some past, unidentified conflict that left the skeleton of a soldier behind a little fortification.

With little food and water, and nothing on the island or the sea to supplement what they scavenged from the plane, the team start shrugging off the vestiges of civilization pretty quickly, eventually committing worse and worse crimes against one another (from stealing to attempted rape to murder), until they divide into two conflicting factions.

All of the players range from adequate to solid, although there's not much for them to do on a regular, human scale, aside from portray some pretty extreme emotions: Terror, rage, grief, despair, etc. This holds true even for the main players–Parker, Peck and Lowndes–while some of the others simply have a trait or two to play (loyal, sneaky, etc). To writer Mark Mavrothalasitis and director Shyam Madiraju's credit, they refrain from making Peck's Andreas a totally crazy-pants lunatic, at least taking the time to show he was a decent, even heroic, human being and team member before thrust into the extreme circumstances, and later digressing for at least a scene to show his grief over his actions.

There's plenty of room for questions, like why no one thought to collect condensation until there are only a half-dozen characters still drawing breath, or why animal life only appears for a scare at the end of the movie (There were snakes on the island? They could have been eating those snakes!). I was also curious why no one even considered cannibalism–characters drop like flies, so they wouldn't even have to kill them to eat them. I mean, that's what sports teams struggling to survive after plane crashes in remote areas do, right?

I must confess some disappointment that there were no dinosaurs or prehistoric monsters of any kind on the island, particularly because the title and plane crash-on-a-mysterious-island set-up so closely resembles that of manga series Cage of Eden, which really should get adapted into a movie, like, immediately.

Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla (1974): Various races of alien invaders have been trying to conquer the Earth via kaiju for years, either by importing their own monsters like Megalon and King Ghidorah, or mind-controlling the Earth's indigenous monsters. The would-be world-conquerers in this, the penultimate installment of the Showa Era cycle of Godzilla films, are from "the third planet from the black hole," a race that I understand have retroactively been dubbed The Simians. Why? Because although they look like Japanese people (as all alien races apparently do or pretend to, based on my viewing of the Godzilla franchise to date), if you kill them, their faces get all blurry for a second and then a cheap, store-bought gorilla mask appears over their heads.

Anyway, The Simians try to put their own spin on the conquering-the-world-via-giant-monster strategy, by building their own and, inexplicably, covering it in rubbery flesh to disguise it as Godzilla for some reason. That might sound like a spoiler, but the movie is called Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla, so you had to know that there was a mechanical Godzilla in the film somewhere, right? (The Japanese title, Gojira Tai Mekagojira is no more coy about the fact that Godzilla would be fighting a mechanical version of himself, and Mechagojira is right there on the original poster; in the initial 1977 U.S. theatrical release, however, the title was a little less revealing: Godzilla Vs. The Bionic Monster....and then Godzilla Vs. The Cosmic Monster, when Steve Austin's people complained about the usage of the word "bionic").

Our human heroes include two brothers, one of whom is a spelunker of some kind and the other of whom has an industrial job, plus a professor who seems expert in both archaeology and mecha-kaiju engineering, his daughter, a lady with a cool hat and some Interpol agents. They all gradually get pulled into The Simians' plot when one of the brothers discovers an ancient prophecy, and an Okinawa priestess has a terrible vision of an apocalyptic battle between monsters.

So one day Godzilla, last seen walking off to Monster Island after his tag-team match with Jet Jaguar against Megalon and Gigan, pops out of Mount Fuji and starts Godzilla-ing around. Something seems a little off about the big G this time, however; his signature cry, for example, doesn't sound anything like it normally does. Just as suddenly, Anguirus appears and starts fighting Godzilla.

That's weird, one of the heroes remarks, as Anguirus and Godzilla are supposed to be friends. It's true, they are, if not friends, than allies, having fought several battles against evil monsters in the past. Oh, unless you count 1956's Godzilla Raids Again, in which Godzilla bit through Anguirus' throat, kicked his lifeless body into the sea and then set his corpse alight with atomic fire.
Friendship to the max
But after that initial misunderstanding, once the pair got to know each other better, they became great friends.

The battle doesn't go well for the string instrument-voiced quadraped, who manages to wound this Godzilla, tearing off a chunk of his shoulder to reveal something shiny underneath. Godzilla kicks his ass pretty good, even grabbing his jaws and pulling in opposite directions until there's a crack and blood pours from Anguirus' mouth. Did Godzilla recently take in King Kong...? Apparently so.

Anguirus, like a video game character, must have three lives though, as he immediately hops up, burrows underground and exits the film, stage lef–er, down.

Next, another Godzilla shows up. What's this? Two Godzillas? No, one is Mechagodzilla. It's in the title. The real Godzilla loses the fight, but he manages to tear, rip and melt off all of Mechagodzilla's false flesh in the process, revealing him in all of his cheesy, tin toy glory. Mechagodzilla has several stupid-looking weapons in his arsenal, including rainbow eye beams, rockets that shoot out of his fingertips and, as we're shown later, cannons in his knees and a cartoon lightning bolt that he can fire from his chest.

While Mechagodzilla technically won the bout, he was badly damaged in the process, and so The Simians capture Professor Miyawjima, forcing him to repair their doomsday weapon for them. Why would some scientist from Earth be able to repair the alien monster machine better than any of The Simians? I don't know.

Meanwhile, two of the other characters are following a more interesting, unusual-for-the-franchise sub-plot, in which they must take a little stone statue of King Caesar, a well-known Japanese name, from Point A to Point B, in order to fulfill part of the prophecy and stave off the end of the world.

Once that has been accomplished and the magical statue is set on a shelf just so, the prophetic priestess sings a magic summoning song, and lo! A mountain splits open to reveal a slumbering King Caesar, who looks like a ratty dog goblin version of a Shisa.

The stage is now set for a three monster showdown! Mechagodzilla beats the hell out of King Caesar for a while, then Godzilla appears, and they all fight for a while.

This may have been the first time I actually yelled at my TV screen during a kaiju movie, as the good monsters had the bad one outnumbered two to one, and yet they just stood there, side-by-side, stumbling like drunks while Mechagodzilla pummelled them with his whole aresenal, from eyebeams to knee cannons. "Split up, you idiots! There are two of you! Attack him from both sides!"

I felt a sudden, unexpected kinship with a professional sports fan, armchair coaching his favorite team.

Godzilla is seemingly mortally wounded by a combination of rainbow eyebeams, which must have hit an artery, based on the fountain of blood shooting from Godzilla's neck (even better arterial spray comes from the lead Simian's throat when he gets shot there, and a black jet of mist shoots from his neck before a monkey mask appears over his face). Mecha then fires more finger missiles into the bloody, prone Godzilla, but these don't explode, just stick in him like darts.

And then Godzilla stands up, and, um, powers up like Goku on Dragonball Z, the finger missiles popping out of him. Mechagodzilla tries to flee, but Godzilla has somehow turned himself into a magnetic pole, and because Mechagodzilla is made of metal, he can't escape being drawn to Godzilla's waiting arms. Godzilla then tears off the robot's head. (Perhaps, like Anguirus, Mechagodzilla will later become friends with Godzilla?)

Godzilla then wanders away, King Caesar climbs back in his mountain hole, and the world is safe from Mechagodzilla...for a year, anyway, as The Terror of Mechagodzilla would be released in 1975.

While short and to the point, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla seems like an only half-formed film. Godzilla himself is sort of incidental to the action, as the film could very easily have been about King Caesar fighting an invading mechanical monster and been a more direct film with a sharper hook. Godzilla is mainly there to give Mechagodzilla someone to impersonate, and then to help out King Caesar in the final battle.

Additionally, the storyline suggests an interesting conflict between superstition and myth, as embodied by the magical, guardian monster King Caesar, and science and technology, as embodied by the alien, monster-shaped weapon of Mechagodzilla, although that contrast is present almost by accident, rather than something that is highlighted, or seemingly even drawn by the filmmakers. Godzilla himself serves as a go-between of sorts, straddling the world of naturally-occurring "good" monsters who defend the earth and science-born "evil" horrors that are intent on harming the earth, but, again, nothing is made of this.

As for poor King Caesar, who, despite the poor costume design, is actually a fairly inspired character, basically fusing elements of the Mothra character with Asian art and mythology, he didn't have much of a future after this. There's a stock footage cameo in Terror of..., and he appears in Final Wars, but then, so does everyone else. He's also in IDW's Rulers of The Earth comic.

The Prophecy (1979): Not to be confused with that weird-ass, crypto-Christian 1995 thriller in which Christopher Walken walks around calling everyone monkeys, this late-seventies enviro-horror film gets its title from a vague Native American myth of a forest protector mixing the qualities of various animals reffered to as "the Katahdin." A callous, casually racist paper mill owner refers to it as some kind of Bigfoot, and thinks "the opies," his name for the local "Original Peoples," are using it as a cover to brutally slaughter the white workers despoiling their forest home.

Bearded do-gooder doctor Robert Foxworth and his secretly-pregnant symphony cellist wife Talia Shire come to investigate claims of deleterious pollution on behalf of the EPA, and find themselves caught in the middle of the conflict between the paper men and the locals...and the Whatever-It-Is stalking the woods.

What it is, in actually, is a slimy, drooling, wrinkly mutated bear that walks on its hind legs and lurches and convulses about with all the grace of a guy in a Godzilla suit, which appears to be how many shots of the creature were achieved. This is, apparently, the end result of mercury poisoning: Sure, it destroys the nervous system of most of the food chain, but I guess it also produces gigantism in some wildlife, and occasional monsterism in bears.

Our heroes find a couple of its cubs, and, being completely idiotic, they take one as proof of the environmental degradation (and to clear the names of the native people accused of the creature's killings) which, naturally, sets the Prophecy Monster on their trail.

There are at least two delightfully bonkers moments in the film. The first is a fight between the defiant leader of the native people, played by an unrecognizably young Armand Assante, and an industrial goon, in which they engage in an axe vs. chainsaw fight over access to a road, while the rest of the cast looks on. The other is the sight of an unfortunate camper zipped up to the neck in a down sleeping bag, frantically hopping away to escape the monster–the monster proceeds to smack the camper so hard that victim and bag both go flying into a rock and explode into a shower of feathers.

The drama is very much of its time, as is the sincere if not exactly scientific message (although mercury does fuck up the whole food chain, from fish to human, and it does severely damage the brain), but me, I came for the monster. And it's not a bad one. The entire climax is a worthwhile one, with a few quite striking images embedded within it.

Snow Girl and The Dark Crystal (2015): Kun Chen plays Zhong Kui, the "King of Ghosts" of Chinese legend, in this at times over-wrought and over-stuffed special effects-heavy martial arts fantasy. Here Zhong Kui is trained by a god to act as a sort of demon-hunting exorcist, given special powers and special missions.

Those powers make him into something of a superhero, giving him the ability to sort of "Hulk out" into a super-sized, super-strong ogre version of himself, and the ability pull his own spine out to use as a sword. The missions includes sneaking into Hell to steal The Dark Crystal, which is apparently a powerful maguffin in some once-in-a-millennium war between Heaven, Earth and Hell. The first half of the title refers to a snow demon played by the supernaturally beautiful Bingbing Li, who meets and falls in love with Zhong Kui when he was a youth, long before he demons-up.

The plot is complicated to the point of being crazy, and the special effects can take over to the point that sometimes all you're looking at is computer-generated imagery, like a video game. The worst is when the characters are in their transformed states, so there are, say, two CGI characters scampering and flying around a CGI landscape, but when the actors are green-screened into Heaven or Hell, the effect can be sort of beautiful.

Regardless of the effects of the whole, there are certain really cool scenes, and it's great fun to see well-rendered, live-action-ish versions of legendary monsters like a nine-tailed fox demon or a vicious kirin. The demons, on the other hand, look a little too video-game, although Snow Girl's sister, who can turn into a large poisonous lizard and has a sweet Maleficent hairstyle, is pretty awesome.

The Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975): The fifteenth and final of the original cycle of Godzilla films is as direct a sequel to its predecessor as any in the series, following closely on the heels and plot-points of the previous years Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla. Interpol is seeking to recover the bits and pieces of the destroyed Mechagodzilla from the bottom of the sea, where Godzilla left them, while the alien invaders from The Third Planet from the Black Hole/The Simians are still trying to conquer Earth via kaiju, now using a combination of a naturally occurring one and their own artificial one.

The Simians, who have much better special effects when it comes to depicting their true forms this go-around, have found an ally in the reclusive, humanity-hating mad scientist Akihiko Hirata. He faked his own death after the scientific community laughed off his research into the lic dinosaur Titanosaurus*, which included developing a way to mind-control dinosaurs. That research becomes a lot less funny when a giant dinosaur destroys the Interpol submarine.

Our hero is marine biologist Katsuhiko Sasaki, who helps Interpol follow leads on the mad scientist's research until they find his daughter Katsura (Tomoko Ai). She is the apparent defender of his legacy, but, like her father, she is up to her neck in the Simian conspiracy. Actually, she's in a little deeper, as she's a cyborg, rebuilt by the aliens after her death. This leads to my favorite scene in the movie, if not any movie:
The humans have found a way to screw with Titanosaurus via sonic weapons, but they're just no match for Titanosaurus and Mechagodzilla 2.0, now hooked up to Katsura's cyborg brain. Good thing they have a kaiju-fighting ally in Godzilla, who shows up to beat the hell out of the bad monsters and help kill aliens.

Watching this with the knowledge that it's the end of the first cycle of Godzilla stories, it seems clear Toho didn't make it knowing this would be the end of their Godzilla saga–at least until they rebooted it a few years down the road–as there's no conclusion. It's not the worst of the cycle either, not by a long-shot, so it doesn't seem like creative exhaustion was the culprit (um, despite the fact that the same aliens and the same monster from the previous film reappear here, of course). Rather, it seems like it was a simple matter of audience exhaustion–of a rather temporary variety–that killed off Showazilla.

Willow Creek (2013): The specter of The Blair Witch Project looms large over any and all found-footage horror films, and writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait's excellent entry into the genre begs the comparison more than most. Like Blair Witch, Willow Creek features attractive, smart-ass outsiders heading into a small town to investigate a local legend that they take a lot less seriously than the locals. And then, once they get out into the woods, they start to experience weird and unsettling stuff, and suddenly the legend is a lot scarier than they thought while they were still safely in sun-lit civilization. In fact, in the audio commentary–yes, it was an interesting enough film that I actually listened to the commentary–Goldthwait mentions a moment where the most obvious, most realistic thing to have a character do is turn the camera on herself and speak directly into it, saying a possible farewell, but it seemed too Blair Witch, so he resisted.

Despite some basic similarities, Willow Creek differs from its influential ancestor in several key ways. First, and most obviously, the legend it deals with is a real one: Bigfoot. The premise is that young couple Jim and Kelly (Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore) are taking a camping vacation in Six Rivers National Forest in Northern California, looking for the precise site of the controversial 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film, purportedly capturing a female Bigfoot walking swiftly away from the rolling camera, which has lead to the most indelable and iconic image of the king of the cryptids (Experts still argue over the film's veracity; I'm firmly in the hoax camp, myself).

Jim's a good-natured, open-minded wannabe-believer...although not a particularly wild-eyed one. He's more Bigfoot enthusiast than partisan. Kelly is an avowed skeptic, tolerating the entire endeavor for the sake of her boyfriend. Lending further veracity to the film, Goldthwait populates it with real figures of the Bigfoot community, and real witnesses, each recounting their own real testimony (the sole exception is a fictional retired park ranger, played by an actor, who tells Jim about an encounter in which his dog was apparently violently killed by a Bigfoot). Like the people, the places are almost all real ones, too, with Goldtwhait occasionally inserting a menacing local to scold our protagonists that Bigfoot is not a joke, and that they shouldn't go looking for him (the last of whom is particularly menacing).

It also differs from Blair Witch and the rest of the sub-genre by the fact that it is very funny, and very scary, more-or-less divided neatly down the middle between the two moods. Our affable, attractive couple enjoy themselves, and their company is easy to enjoy, in town, and, once in they get in the woods, things get weirder and weirder and scarier and scarier.

There's a pretty astounding scene in which they sit still in their tent for just over twenty minutes, lit only by the light on their camera, listening intently to the strange, menacing sounds outside–howls, growls and wood-knocking. It's among the most intense scenes I've ever seen in a film, and despite filling almost a full quarter of the film's run-time, it doesn't feel it, so effective is Goldthwait and his actors at putting you in the tent with them.

The film ends as such films must. Something has to happen to the protagonists in order for their footage to be lost, and thus found, after all, but it is an incredibly thrilling, ambiguous ending. It's worth noting that despite the fact that the beast-man of the forest permeates every frame of the film, he never actually appears, and the scariest, most shocking image is precisely that because it's not what one might expect–or suspect, despite the Chekovian foreshadowing.

There are two possible readings to the ambiguous ending, neither of which is good for our heroes. Maybe the best Bigfoot-related horror film I've ever seen, and one of the better–if not the best–of the found-footage genre, Willow Creek is an all-around remarkable film.


The Bigfoot Book: They Encyclopedia of Sasquatch, Yeti, and Cryptid Primates (Visible Ink Press; 2016): This book combines a format I really like, that of an encyclopedia, and a subject I really like, Bigfoot, making it pretty much an ideal book for me. I had a lot of fun reading it, and its short, article-like entries make it a perfect companion for when one is dining alone or waiting in a doctor's office.

It's written by prolific paranormal and conspiracy theory writer Nick Redfern, whose 2013 Monster Files: A Look Inside Government Secrets and Classified Documents on Bizarre Creatures and Extraordinary Animals I had previously read and enjoyed. One could certainly argue with what Redfern chose to include within his book, especially since at a mere 350-pages it is extensive without even approaching exhaustive. Many of the entries tell of stories that will be extremely familiar to anyone who has read much about Bigfoot, as most of the "classic" cases, characters and anecdotes appear within, but then, those are all classics for a reason, and it can still be rewarding to re-read (or even re-re-re-read)them, especially when presented in Redfern's short and sweet, encyclopedia-entry format.

Being British, Redfern is naturally attracted to tales of crytpid primates on the British Isles, and so there are a surprising amount of stories from abroad in here, probably too many then are necessary, really, making it seem like Wales, for example, is one of the most likely places one might fight a relic Gigantopithecus population. He also includes several ghost stories involving ape-like apparitions, which seem so far removed from the subject matter as to have been accidentally included in the wrong book, but these are interesting, and these, at least, were all new to me so I didn't mind reading about them here, even if they seemed curious choices to include in a book with no entry for, say, Devil Monkeys or North American Apes.

Redfern also includes a lot of entries on films, most of which read like over-long movie reviews, and while many of them are Bigfoot movies (Harry and The Hendersons, The Legend of Boggy Creek, Willow Creek), far too many are gorilla movies that have nothing compelling to do with Bigfoot (particularly given all the Bigfoot movies that aren't covered), and, perhaps the strangest inclusions are The New Daughter and The Descent, which are pretty clearly not Bigfoot movies, despite having plots revolving around ancient and/or atavistic cultures in America. The latter is the more perplexing conclusion, but apparently Redfern includes it because he thinks the creatures from The Descent offer a clue as to why Bigfoot are so rarely seen, how they seem to appear and disappear so easily, and why we never find their bodies: He believes they could very well be subterranean.

The Bigfoot Book is far too all-over-the-place to be the sort of encyclopedia on the beast that I would most want to read (also, including the bibliographic information for each entry at the end of it rather than all at the end would have made for a more useful reference guide), nor is it the one I would have written, but I enjoyed spending time with it, and would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject looking for a light book to read at restaurants and in doctor's offices.

Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween (Bloomsbury; 2002): I can't help but think that this should probably have been entitled Death Takes a Holiday rather than Makes a Holiday, and thus use the actual name of the film it's title is obviously a reference to, as that also makes a little more sense, although it does personify death, and maybe author David J. Skal didn't want to do that.

Either way, pretty great title.

This is, as the sub-title makes clear, a cultural history of Halloween which, like Christmas, isn't really all that ancient a holiday as we all like to pretend, but a fairly modern invention (despite, in both cases, aspects which echo practices of previous cultures of previous centuries).

Skal takes an interesting, rather unconventional approach. After an introductory chapter called "The Candy Man's Tale" in which he discusses the nationwide panic over kids being poisoned or otherwise injured by tampered-with trick-or-treat candy (by rather suspensefully detailing the exception that proves the rule that such fears are unfounded urban legends), each of the following five chapters tackles a different aspect of Halloween, often peculiar to a different part of the country.

"The Halloween Machine" discusses the history of the holiday; "The Witch's Teat" discusses witches and witchraft and how Salem, Massachusetts has dealt with the holiday; "Home Is Where The Hearse Is" discusses haunted houses (as in people who decorate their houses to the extreme and the commercial haunted house industry, and not actual haunted houses actually haunted by actual ghosts, because ghosts aren't real); "The Devil On Castro Street" checks in with the culture wars; and, finally, "Halloween On Screen" discusses horror films related to the holiday, paying closest attention to the horror film that took the name of the holiday for its great success.

There's an afterword, which, given the copyright date, was likely a much hastier-written portion than the preceding chapters, but then, the research needed wouldn't have been as difficult, as it was likely still unfolding as it was being written. Entitled "September 11 and Octobver 31," it details that first Haloween after the September 11 attacks, and how the injection of real terror into the American national psyche affected the various ways in which we dealt with the annual pretend terror of the holiday. An entire book could probably be written about America's cultural terrorized state in the fall of 2001, but Skal does a fine job given just a few pages, relating the attacks to his subject matter, and contrasting the celebration of Halloween in the United States, and our national attitude towards death, with the celebration of the Day of The Dead in Mexico, and their national attitude toward death.


Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg: Though co-written by an extremely gifted comedian, whose image occupies the cover and whose voice it is performing the audiobook, Modern Romance is not a humor book (although it is very funny). Ansari, like a lot of celebrity authors famous in a field other than book-writing, has a co-author, although his is a sociologist. To my surprise, this is an extremely timely, extremely cogent sociological study (but with jokes!) of how people date today, and how the pursuit of romance and a romantic partner has changed so completely in the course of just two or three generations.

And this isn't just a comedy/sociology mash-up either, as Ansari and Klinenberg didn't just consult existing studies and literature--although they do that to, and speak with various scientists and authors on the subject. No, they conducted a fairly massive research project of their own, visiting various cities in various countries (as disparate as Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and cities in the U.S. and Qatar) for surveys and focus groups, and conducting an online study. Ansari certainly upped the ante for books by comedians quite considerably.

The results are surprising and fascinating (and, obviously, funny). A great deal of attention is devoted to technology and how that has changed dating, as newspaper personal ads and phone calls are a thing of the past...and even online dating is giving way to quick, easy and fun apps of Tinder's ilk. Social forces have also transformed dating, particularly the relatively new emergence of "young adulthood," which includes college and a few years in many people's twenties where they can find themselves and their careers (as opposed to pairing off, usually with someone from quite close by, and starting families almost immediately upon reaching adulthood). So to has belief in the existence of soul mates and/or marrying for love, which has made everyone far pickier than their parents and grandparents may have been.

Ansari peppers the book with humorous anecdotes from his own love life and those of many of their interviewees, giving faces and funny stories to match the many points. As unlike a book from a comedian as Modern Romance, which I can't recommend strongly enough to any single readers I know, may be, it still has an incredible amount of Ansari's own peculiar sense of humor and persona infused within it, to the extent that the actually rather moving, inspirational ending involves Ansari comparing getting to know a potential partner to listening to a new Flo Rida track.

If you've been reading--or, let's be honest, scanning through--these posts for very long, you'll have noticed I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and, in fact, listen to more new books than I do read new books (I blame both the amount of driving I do and the fact that so much of my reading time is devoted to comics). One advantage of this audiobook over the book-book is you get to hear Ansari perform it, which means in addition to at least sounding a bit like his generally-excellent comedy albums, you get bonus jokes, like his introduction berating you for being too lazy to read the book, but needing him to read it to you, or his delaying starting to read the book because the background music in the introduction is so good, or the funny accents he occasionally decides to give the people they interview, just for his own amusement.

Santa Claus In Oz by L. Frank Baum: I was pretty disappointed to find that the title of this audiobook was simply a bit of marketing, a way to thoroughly telegraph that these were Santa Claus stories by the guy who wrote The Wizard of Oz; I, seeing the title, thought it was actually a book in which Santa Claus visits the Land of Oz, which sounded infinitely more interesting than the stories being told.

These are Baum's The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, his nursery novella detailing the origin story of Santa, and a short story "A Kidnapped Santa Claus," in which some nearby allegorical demons detain Santa from his rounds one Christmas Eve.

While it wasn't what I expected when I popped the first of the three discs into my car's CD player, I actually didn't mind overmuch, as Baum's Santa Claus was a book I started sometime in grade school, and never got around to finishing (I don't think I even made it to the point where little Claus reached manhood and moved out of his nymph mom's bower). Ironically, as I was listening to it this time through, I thought this was exactly the sort of story I would have liked to hear as a very little, very nervous kid as a bedtime story. Practically conflict-free, it is basically a tension-less recounting of Santa Claus' origin, and explanations for many modern Christmas traditions, all of these reverse-engineered, so that Baum is suggesting possible explanations for why things might be the way they are, rather than offering the real explanations for various practices.

An orphan adopted by a wood nymph named Necille in a fairy-filled forest, Santa is a saintly, holy, basically Buddha-like figure beloved by all immortals...and thus also beloved that which the immortals attend to, like plants and animals and even, to a degree, the elements themselves.

Baum has rather remarkably managed to drain any and all Christian elements from Santa's life, and even the establishment of Christmas Eve as the day of his visit seems to have been chosen at random, rather than as any sort of celebration of the birth of Christ (It's not entirely clear when the novel is set, but it seems to post-date the first centuries of Christianity by quite a fact, it seems set only a few generations previous to its writing).

The main exception to this is the idea that humans differ from immortals and a few other supernatural creatures, like the Awgwas, which either live forever or live one life and die, as it is mentioned that only human beings have the opportunity for an afterlife of some sort. The Awgwas, by the way, offer the only real sense of conflict in the pages of Life and Adventures, as they constantly mess with Santa until the immortals decide to intervene and basically exterminate them all, in a rather cold and practical discussion.

A huge, 300-like battle scene apparently rages outside of Santa's cottage in The Laughing Valley (which he is oblivious too), a battle in which the invisible mountain giants the Awgwas join forces with other evil creatures (including "Asiatic dragons," which must make this one of the few examples of Asian dragons being portrayed as evil...and the closest Baum seems to come to racism in this particular work) line up on one side, and the various races of fairies line up on the other, under the leadership of the god-like Ak, Master Woodsman of the world. It's a massacre.

Read--or listened to, as the case may be--today, it is perhaps of greatest interest to see how Baum's version of Santa contrasts with others, like his placement of Santa's home in the fictional Laughing Valley (its precise location never revealed) instead of the North Pole, and his assignation of ten rather than eight reindeer, with very different names than those assigned to Santa's team by Clement Clarke Moore (Flossie, Glossie, Racer, Pacer, Reckless, Speckless, Fearless, Peerless, Ready and Steady). For what it's worth, Baum's book was first published in 1902, while Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas" was first published in 1823, and Santa's North Pole residence was believed to have been established by Thomas Nast in the 1860s, as a way locate Santa in specific geography beyond the borders of any country.

Baum, then, was deliberately striking out on his own with these innovations, although it should be said in those early days, when the modern conception of Santa Claus was still forming, many specifics of his generally-agreed upon story likely hadn't cooled and hardened yet. In other words, while Baum's Santa story didn't conform to some previous Santa stories, he likely wasn't setting out to be contrary.

Star Wars: A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller: I ordered this one from another library based on the strength of Miller's Kenobi, probably the best of the Star Wars books I've read listened to (see below for a brief review of that). Had I known in advance that this was a prequel to the computer-animated Star Wars: Rebels TV series, I might not have been so eager to try it, as I had no prior experience with the Rebels series, and was put-off by what little I knew of it (After listening to this book, I gave it a try though, and, to my great surprise, actually really rather enjoyed the Rebels, and watched the whole first season on DVD. Did you know Freddie Prinze Jr. voices Kanaan Jarrus/Caleb Dume? If someone would have just told me that at the get-go, I would have been all over Rebels. My favorite character dies at the end of the season, though).

Set in the period between Episodes III and IV, when the Empire is still relatively new and the Rebellion is still in its infancy, it follows Kanaan Jarrus, one of the seemingly endless Jedi who actually survived the Order 66 purge (although in current continuity, maybe there's only...four...?). "Jedi" might be putting it a little too strongly, however, as he was still just a very young Padawan learner when the Jedi were exterminated, and he was forced to change his name and go into hiding. He can still use the Force, but doesn't, and he still has a light saber, which he never ignites.

In addition to changing his name from Caleb Dume (for which I'm thankful; while it was nice of the Star Wars people to name a character after me personally, "Caleb" is still such a relatively rare name that I jumped a little every time I heard a character use it on the audiobook), Kanaan adopted as un-Jedi-like a lifestyle as possible. He's traveled the galaxy working menial-ish jobs in which his training and abilities allowed him to excel, but not to excel too much in, and risk drawing attention. He also drank, brawled, womanized and generally caroused. As Miller portrays him here–and with Star Wars stuff, it's awfully hard to know exactly who to credit with the "creation" of characters–Kanaan is a pretty inspired, almost perfect Star Wars character. He's basically a blend of later Luke Skywalker with earlier Han Solo, a super-powered, mystical Jedi warrior in a thick coat of scoundrel (In the TV show, he's much less of a Han Solo-type, it's worth noting, btu a more generic Jedi character).

The main villain of the book, one Count Vidian, is also a pretty inspired character (to the point I assumed he would be the main antagonist of Kanaan and the others on Rebels, but I was confusing him with The Inquisitor, I guess). Remember how the first and ultimate Star Wars villain, Darth Vader, was originally sent to the Death Star construction project inspire the Imperials to complete it in a timely fashion? Well, Vidiom shares with Vader a cyborg nature and distinctive voice–a big, booming emphatic one that made reader Marc Thompson's performance of him a pleasure to listen to–and Miller has taken that single aspect of Vader's characterization–The Empire's evil project manager–and made that into Vidian's role. He's an Imperial efficiency expert, sent to a take over and oversee all mining operations on a crystalline moon in the Outer Rim that produces stuff the Empire needs to make weapons. And Vidian, like Vader, isn't above killing to inspire efficiency, although rather than Force-chokes, Vidian simply beats ineffective middle-managers to death with his robot fists.

Vidian's arrival, and that of a mysterious pre-Rebellion agent who Rebels viewers will recognize immediately as Hera, gradually set Kanaan on the path to being a hero, finally embracing at least that aspect of his Jedi past. They're part of a rag-tag band that includes a Clone War veteran/conspiracy theorist/mad bomber and a surveillance expert, both of whom are more-or-less forced to fight the Empire by its intrusion into their lives and its actions against them.

Miller engages in some pretty elaborate plotting, once again giving all of the characters–even the handful of Imperials–grasp-able motivations and even story arcs. No one here is pure evil, even if those like Vidian come about as close as can be, his "redeeming" qualities mainly consisting of the desire for revenge or to outmaneuver an immensely irritating rival in the Emperor's court. Also, as I mentioned earlier, he sounds awesome.

Sound, as I always point out, is a big part of why I like listening to these Star Wars novels at all. Thompson does a pretty incredible job, performing each of the main half-dozen characters with such distinct voices that it's quite easy to forget that it's just the one guy doing them all. I could listen to his Vidian all day. In fact, I think Thompson should read future audibooks as Vidian.

The book doesn't end with Kanaan and Hera joining the rest of the cast of Rebels; this is, in fact, the story of their first meeting, and so Miller/The Star Wars people have left plenty of room between this story and the start of the TV show, either to keep from stepping on the toes of the TV show people, or just to leave enough space for sequels to this book, featuring the pre-Rebels Kanaan (who is a very different character than the one that appears on the show, I found out later) and Hera.

It's still not as good as Kenobi, though. That remains, in my limited-ish experience, the reigning champ of Star Wars audiobooks.

Star Wars: Heir To The Jedi by Kevin Hearne: One of the earliest examples of a Star Wars novel in the new, The Force Awakens-mandated reboot of the Star Wars universe's continuity, this Luke Skywalker-starring book is more notable still for another aspect: It's written in first-person perspective, from Luke's point-of-view. That's extremely rare with Star Wars novels, to the point that it may even be unique, or close to.

It's also not very good, even by the particular (and particularly low) standards by which I judge Star Wars novels, which aren't exactly striving to be high literature or anything.

Hearne's plot is an extremely shaggy one. Set shortly after the events of Episode IV but well before those of Episode V, it finds the young Skywalker, still struggling to come to terms with his new role as one of the galaxy's best pilots (despite having never left his backwater desert planet before a few months ago), the Rebel hero famous for destroying the Death Star and the last guy in the universe to have a light saber and to (apparently) know jack shit about the Force and the Jedi...having hung out with Obi-Wan Kenobi for, like, a couple of hours.

The book opens with Luke on maybe the least Luke-like mission imaginable, trying to buy armaments from the Planet of The Greedos (Is the whole Rebellion just the half-dozen stars of the first movie, at this point? Because even then, negotiating the purchase of weapons and smuggling them seems like the sort of thing that they might assign to, say, the smuggler among those half-dozen characters, doesn't it?), where he learns of the tomb of a Rodian Jedi, and is given his lightsaber to dissassemble and screw around with (which is how he tumbles to the fact that the Force may have telekinetic applications).

From there he teams with a new character and love interest who, it won't surprise you to learn, doesn't survive to be in Empire Strikes Back. This is Nakari Kelen, a wealthy rebel whose father is in the biological weapons buisness and whose mother was killed by the Empire for performing a song crudely criticizing Darth Vader and the Imperials. Together with her and R2-D2, Luke goes on a not-too-terribly-connected series of errands, culminating in the rescue of the galaxy's best hacker splicer, Drusil Bephorin a math-obsessed Givin (I don't recall these folks from the movies, but have seen them in the Dark Horse comics; they're pretty much identical to humans, save for the fact that they have exoskeletons that make them look like sad ghosts).

While engaging in daring space flights and espionage--and, in a rather perplexing side-trip, fighting weird, invisible space-bugs that have drill-heads to bore into their victims' brains--Luke begins to develop feelings for Nakari, which make him feel weird (at this point, he's still kind of in love with his sister Leia), and begins experimenting with the use of the Force as a means of telekinesis...practicing on noodles.

The narration is kind of weird and even distracting. Reader/performer does a fine job of affecting the voice of a young Mark Hamill playing a young, inexperienced Luke, although he performs it, which is strange, as presumably this is a record of Luke's thoughts, perhaps some kind of journal, so the performance is pretty unnecessary, as is performing the voices of other characters (although I always enjoy hearing one of these actors doing an Admiral "It's A Trap!" Ackbar, who appears in a few short scenes alongside Leia, or any members of Ackbar's species/race). For example, when Luke quotes something Han Solo has told him before, Han's quote is read in a "Han voice," which sounds more John Wayne than Harrison Ford.

I really liked a few of the new characters who are introduced, especially Drusil, who performer Marc Thompson gives a voice that sounds a lot like Droopy's (and a little, exhalation of a laugh that sounds vaguely like Muttley),and Nakari's father, who is an amusingly pompous figure who apparently checks his behavior half-way through each sentence, so that each begins imperiously, and ends humbly.

In terms of plot, it reads more like a very polished first or second draft, one in which scenes are fleshed out, but more-or-less unconnected, or barely so. It's climax seems oddly flat, too, consisting only of Luke, Nakari and R2 facing a handful of bounty hunters in a scene that seems extremely un-Star Wars-like...and not of sufficient threat or magnitude to actually kill a rebel (Nakari goes out like Bothan).

I did like the line in the book where Luke suddenly realizes that he never did pick up those power converters from Tosche station, which was something he whined about in New Hope.

So it has its attributes and draw-backs, but more than a novel, it's basically just a list of good things and bad things, strung together scene-by-scene until the sufficient page count has been hit.

Star Wars: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller: It's easy to look at the prequel trilogy and point to specific poor filmmaking or storytelling choices, choices that impact the overall Star Wars saga in negative ways. Harder to articulate is the fact that the prequel trilogy's very existence drained a great deal of the mystery and drama from the previous, original trilogy narrative. Simply by actualizing what was left purposefully vague the first time through, George Lucas and company filled in blanks that had previously only contained potential. And it's impossible for someone to be disappointed by something they can't really see or experience for themselves.

Put another way, watching the first trilogy, the events that lead to the state of the galaxy and the characters as originally encountered are only hinted at and are, ultimately, unnecessary...even unimportant. But once the prequels hit the screen, fans had to match them up and, well, they don't fit together all that well. For one thing–the most obvious thing–Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and the galaxy as a whole sure seemed to age a hell of a lot more than the 20-ish years it must have taken Anakin and Padem's babies to age into Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill in Episode IV.

So if Obi-Wan was so young, hale and hearty at the end of Episode III, dropping baby Luke off with a moisture farmer on Anakin Skywalker's home planet so he could watch him from a distance doesn't exactly strike me as the best plan, and one can't help but wonder what the hell Obi-Wan did for those decades, you know? (Listening to this, I wondered if anyone ever did an alternate reality Star Wars comic for Dark Horse where Obi-Wan decided to raise Luke himself, and the pair roamed the Galaxy like the Star Wars version of Lone Wolf and Cub. It is my understanding that no one has. But someone should. Get on that, Marvel Comics!)

Well, this extraordinary novel by John Jackson Miller doesn't exactly answer how exactly Obi-Wan aged like 50 years on Tatooine, but it does deal with the galaxy-trotting, swashbuckling adventurer's struggle to settle into a new life as a stay-at-hut hermit, as well as providing evidence that–despite young Luke's whining in A New Hope–there's actually quite a lot going on on Tatooine.

The best Star Wars novel I've yet read (by a long shot), Miller takes the Western influences on Lucas' original Star Wars and accentuates them, taking various elements of a Western template and Star Wars-izing them, but doing so semi-subtly, to the point that the strings may show, but he never rubs your face in them. He also takes care to avoid the more negative aspects of the traditional American Western film or novel (particularly as pertains to the treatment of the Indians and women), and an unusual amount of care (for a Star Wars novel) in developing the characters.

The book may be set in a galaxy where the black hats literally worship or ally themselves with "The Dark Side," but Miller keeps his villains gray. Even those with the fewest amount of narrative space are given motivations that are easy to understand as justifications for their actions, and the main villain of the piece has various facets to his character.

The action here is set on the dangerous frontier lands of Tatooine, where the "settlers" are in deadly conflict with the Sand People/Tusken Raiders, who are set up to play Indians to the (space-)cowboys. The cast includes a virtuous, self-reliant widow who runs the general store, her headstrong teenagers, a wealthy rancher-type with designs on the widow and her holdings, a native-hunting posse that's too quick with their guns and too interested in drinking, a local crime boss and a cantankerous old man.

Into this cast and their conflicts wanders a mysterious, white knight of a stranger not looking for trouble (but continually finding it). Like plenty of Western heroes, he's retired from fighting, and hung up his weapon for good–so you know it's only a matter of time before he takes it up again, and there's a great deal of suspense involved in waiting for it, and wondering when the exact circumstances in which he will do so will finally arise.

That would be Obi-Wan Kenobi, obviously; re-christened Ben.

Miller jumps from perspective to perspective in his storytelling, the most interesting of the book's leads being "Plug-Eye," a one-eyed Tusken who gives us a thorough, deep and somewhat surprising understanding of their culture, which Miller has extrapolated from the scant clues in the film and other "Expanded Universe" appearances of the "Raiders."

In addition to the excellent world-building (world-re-building? Re-modeling?) and character work, Miller weaves a pretty intense, tense narrative. This being Star Wars, one expects the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose, but Miller draws the climax out quite long, and adds plenty of twists and turns. I hate to sound as if I'm gushing, but were I reading the paper version of this book, I would say that I couldn't put it down. I usually just listen to audio books while driving in the car, my travel schedule dictating when I "read." As this one neared the end, however, I brought into the house and listened to the last few discs, unable to stop.

If you read–well, listen to–only one Star Wars novel, I'd suggest it be this one, as, in my experience, it's the best of the lot (At least of those I've listened to over the past few years, for whatever that's worth).

Oh, and Miller has a really neat bit incorporating the Marvel Comics version of Jabba, introduced before Return of The Jediand before the folks making the comic knew what a Hutt was supposed to look like, into the "real" Star Wars Universe, having that Jabba being one of the real Jabba's employees, renting an office and conducing business in Jabba's name.

Zoo by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge: They say familiarity breeds contempt, which might explain why some of us in public libraries hold such contemptuous feelings about James Patterson. I see James Patterson's stupid face on the back of his stupid books all day every day, as they are checked in and checked out; I pull books with his big stupid name in his big stupid James Patterson font on their spines every time I pull holds for patrons; I put patrons on hold for his stupid books and answer questions about his stupid books; I nod and smile when patron's tell me what a great writer he is, occasionally passive-aggressively replying, "Well, he's certainly prolific"; I shake my head slowly every Tuesday when new releases come out, and more often than not there's a new book or three in some genre or format that Patterson co-wrote among them.

I know the contempt is irrational, and any time someone is reading something instead of watching TV or playing a video game I should be happy. I blame that familiarity.

Anyway, that's a long way of saying that I've never read anything James Patterson wrote, and I didn't think I ever would, given that I feel something between disinterest and disgust whenever I think of him, which is fairly regularly.

That said, not long ago I found myself about to take a long-ish drive and without an audiobook to listen to while I took it. Usually this is when a Star Wars novel would come in handy, but I'd listened to all of those that were readily available, and, after scouring the shelves of the library, I thought I'd try Zoo least then I would be able to say I've read/listened-to at least one of Patterson's 5,739 books.

I was curious about this particular book when I first heard the premise--animals attacking people--and wondered what Patterson and his collaborator had used as the rationale for the attacks. (Would it be global warming, as in 1977's Day of The Animals...?)

That reason for why the animals start attacking was what hooked me, and Patterson and Ledwidge made it not only a hook, but also a line of sorts, as they were able to reel me in and pull me through the course of the whole novel as I waited to find out what it was. Naturally, the explanation doesn't really get revealed until close to the apocalyptic climax, as figuring out what was wrong (and, of course, how to fix it), is the goal of the hero, Jackson Oz.

He is naturally a good-looking, charming, brilliant scientist and man-of-action, who developed a theory about mammals attacking human beings randomly, instances of which were gradually increasing in volume as well as violence. Scoffed at (naturally), he becomes an outsider of the scientific establishment, but continues to monitor the world and work on his theory and a way to prove it from his apartment, which he shares with a pet chimpanzee named Atilla, who he rescued from medical experimentation.

You probably saw a problem right there, huh? I was sorta baffled by it myself, as Pattwidge never even remark upon the fact that the guy who is convinced an unknown stimulus is causing mammals to suddenly, viciously attack humans all of a sudden has been sharing his New York City apartment with one of the most dangerous mammals in the world, and he seems genuinely shocked when Atilla inevitably turns on him and his loved ones.

That is actually the only real plot hole, or glaring flaw in the narrative. I thought the rapidity of the solution's effect was a little hard to believe as well, given that it involves society as a whole to stop doing something they've been doing for years, even decades, but other than that, I thought it was engaging, even thrilling story. The scene with the giant, New York "hive" of dogs was particularly nightmarish.

Pattwidge does a pretty great job staging sudden, sometimes mysterious and often quite suspenseful and scary animal attacks, and the eventual revelation of the cause sounds reasonable to a lay-person like me. Like, I don't know enough about how brains, animal or otherwise, work to know how far-fetched this actually is (I'm assuming pretty far-fetched, as it hasn't actually happened in real life), but credit where credit is due, they do come up with two widespread environmental factors that, in combination, make animals go ape-shit, and they are factors that haven't been around all that long (particularly in the case of the one), making a sudden revolt of nature against humanity at least plausible enough not to read/listen-to a book about.

The ending, as I stated, involved a pretty rapid fix...but a temporary one, and it's an interesting dystopia Pattwidge suggests: If humanity can remain disciplined enough to fix the problem, than we enter a strange, new post-apocalyptic style era or history. If we don't, we enter an even stranger, scarier post-apocalyptic style era were we're constantly fighting horrifying swarms of killer mammals.

Since this was my first Patterson book, I was sort of surprised that it read like little more than the novelization of a Hollywood blockbuster movie that doesn't exist, but, if that's the way his books are usually written, than it would certainly explain their popularity. I understand this one was adapted into a TV mini-series already, and a graphic novel, the latter of which I flipped through in a big-box bookstore shortly after reading listening to this (the art was black and white, and it seemed to follow the book rather closely, although I didn't see any images as striking as those the novel suggested in my imagination). I'm kind of curious about both adaptations now, just to see how they translate some of the more fantastical imagery.


Crush Songs by Karen O: This solo project from the lead singer of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs consists of songs written and recorded in private around the time she was 27 (so around 2005 or so, a little after Fever To Tell, just before Show Your Bones*), according to the note on the CD's booklet, back when she said she "crushed a lot." These songs "are the soundtrack to what was an ever continuing LOVE CRUSADE," she wrote, finishing "I hope they keep you company on yours."

I'm not sure what compelled her to release them as an album at this particular point in time (well, in 2014, anyway; I'm obviously not as up on music as I was when I was a younger man, even when it comes to favorite artists and acts). But I'm glad she did.

Simpler, more stripped-down and much lower energy and tempo than her Yeah Yeah Yeahs output, the mostly melancholy songs of the album generally feature little more than a guitar and minimal percussion behind Karen O's voice. Given the power and range (musical and emotional) of that voice, though, it's not like a song needs much more than that.

Most of the lyrics, read separately from the music, are, as the title would suggest, concerned with love and romance, and often negative aspects of it, like longing and unrequited love. Also included among the 15 songs are a Doors cover ("Indian Summer") and a cute song about Michael Jackson's passing, the latter of which included a rhyme that bugged the hell out of me:
The King of Pop is dead and gone away
No one ever take his place
He's in his castle in the sky
watching over you and I
and with his single sparkling glove
he blows us kisses show us love
Surely "he blows us kisses from above" would be better, wouldn't it...?

Things Like That There by Yo La Tengo: Another album in the spirit of 1990's Fakebook, Yo La Tengo's latest features 14 songs comprised of covers, "covers" of a few of their own previously recorded and released songs and a few originals. The song that garnered the most attention upon the album's original release was their cover of The Cure's most controversial (among Cure fans) song, the perfectly pop "Friday I'm In Love."

It is, like so many songs Yo La Tengo covers, completely transformed, with stripped-down instrumentation that takes The Cure song to its barest of musical bones, and Georgia Hubley's gentle, melodic, slightly-subdued voice turning it from The Cure's awkward, would-be party anthem into a touching love song.

My favorite of the covers is that of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," transformed even further, as the gulf between Hubley's lullaby voice and Williams' old-school ballad drawl could barely be further apart; the song now sounds and feels just as melancholics as the lyrics, if not more so.

The other covers cover a lot of different ground--1950s doo-wop outfit The Parliaments, '60s pop band The Lovin' Spoonful, '80s country band The Great Plains, Antietam, Special Pillow and The Cosmic Rays with Sun Ra and his Arkestra--but Yo La Tengo's sound is so thoroughly theirs at this point that if you hadn't heard any of these songs by their original performers before, you'd certainly be forgiven for thinking they are all Yo La Tengo originals. Every song on the album is made so completely theirs, that it seems like an accomplished album from an extremely skilled band with a song-writing style that embraces the whole history of 20th century pop music.

Well, that kind of does describe the band, whoever wrote and/or popularized the individual songs on this particular album.

*Not to be confused with the real dinosaur Titanosaurus, which was first described in the late 19th century and thus is almost a full century older than Toho's Titanosaurus. The differences are pretty extreme, including the fact that the real Titanosaurs were sauropods, were dinosaur-sized rather than kaiju-sized and it was pretty unlikely that they had the power to cause hurricanes or tidal waves by wagging their tails.

**Although the credits at the end of the booklet says "All songs written & recorded by Karen O. in 2006-10, so it was more like "her late twenties" than when she was 27, but whatever.


Ryan said...

I had much the same impression of Episode VII, and it's been odd to watch seemingly everyone I know gush over it and even call it a "perfect movie." Good to know I'm not the only one who found it competent but dull and lacking in some much-needed exposition.

Anonymous said...

Every time I read another person posting that the new Star Wars film was not very good it gives me life. The first time I saw it I actually very directly disliked it, mellowing out on a second viewing. Here's to the franchise tightening up moving forward-

Anonymous said...

That sleeping bag shot is the best. Left me in stitches. Even now, thinking about those feathers...

Unknown said...

I got the impression that the First Order was engaged in some sort of Cold War with the Republic. They were officially at peace, but unofficially were trying to undermine each other. The Resistance is an anti-First Order guerrilla group that fights the First Order in their territory. They are funded under the table by the Republic, so that the Republic can fight the First Order without starting an all-out war. Sort of like how the US funded the mujahideen against the Soviets in the 80s.

I think the problem is that the politics in the prequel got such a bad reception that Abrams wanted to leave it all the political stuff implicit, like it was in the original trilogy. The problem with that is that the original trilogy had a very simple political setup that was easy to infer with no explanation. The new trilogy has a more complex political setup that isn't readily apparent to people who aren't Cold War history buffs.