Here you can find both my short reviews, say < 4 paragraphs, and links to those which are blog posts.
In a few instances, I have welcomed guest posts by select friends. If you want to know more about the author of any guest reviews, click the relevant link in each.
YOUR views on my reviews are welcome below. Just be certain to follow the Posting Rules. Spanks a lot.
Defining the Sacred: Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East, by Nicola Laneri, ed.
The Christian Myth; Origins, Logic and Legacy, by Burton L. Mack
Confessions of a Born-Again Atheist; The Implausible Lives of a Godless Guy, by Frank Zindler
ISI Books, 2003
Review written August 2, 2023
Part of the Guides to Major Disciplines series.
My disappointment with Mary Beard’s Classics: A Very Short Introduction (with John Henderson), part of the ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series by Oxford University Press, has finally been vindicated.
Thornton, a Professor of Classics and Humanities at California State U., utilizes a conservative approach in this brief 90 page tome with only 16 footnotes. Broken down into sections such as ‘What Is Classics?'[sic], ‘Epic’, ‘Letters’, ‘Biography’ and ‘History’, the conclusion, ‘The Classical Heritage’ wraps up the story, and continues the fine introductory sections.
Important people (Herodotus, Pindar, etc.) and subjects (didactic, epigram, etc.) from the Classical heritage are printed in bold, for those needing a quick referral. Several authors are also given their own in-text breakaway paragraphs.
In the Further Reading section, he gives good recommendations, concentrating on what he considers to be the best translations and commentaries. Throughout, he mentions the Loeb Classical Library, paleography, epigraphy, and other subjects usually skipped in such introductions to Classical Studies, and especially in Beard, mentioned above.
I do, however, have both a minor and major negative critique. Minor = Despite 2 places where such would have been appropriate, there is no mention of Pausanias. Much of what we know about ancient Greece geography, architecture and myth come from his travelogue (see Frazer’s Pausanius). Though the format limitation means some items of interest will be excised, this seems to me in error. Major = No index.
Yet I do recommend, for those interested in wanting a basic (and brief) coverage of our Greek and Latin heritage, this easy and accessible book.
8 stars out of 10
Broadleaf Books, 2023
Review written April 16, 2023
At a recent conference in Phoenix, I had the pleasure of hearing a talk by Dr. Bradley Onishi titled “Christian Nationalists’ 60 Year War on Democracy.” A religious studies teacher, Onishi gave a compelling discussion, sweeping in scope, yet with enough detail in 45 minutes I was compelled to purchase his recently released book Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism–And What Comes Next. I eagerly began reading my autographed copy on the flight home, finishing the next day.
He begins by giving the background to his own life, growing up in Orange County, CA, and was for many years part of the Christian Evangelism movement. While explaining how the OC gained an outsized role in the politics leading to modern ideas of Christian Nationalism, he examines wide political movements and still presents clear elaborations on individual examples. Balancing depth and width is perhaps this book’s greatest strength, with an admirable fluidity of writing and ease of understanding. His research and the clear explanations put this book in the range of my highest recommendation.
He utilizes a referencing style I have not seen since Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, where in place of having superscript numbers for references listed in the back of the book, there is a chapter-by-chapter listing of major resources, 186 in total. To give one example, on pages 139-142, he discusses how we know truth from fiction, and defines conspiracy theories. If you would like to know more, you go the section in the references for Chapter 8, and find “what makes a theory:”where he gives details. Many of the references are checkable online, with few referenced titles difficult to consult.
This leads me to my first recommendation for the next printing or edition. When a reader is in a chapter, the name of the chapter is always at the top of the page, yet when flipping to the Notes, the listing is only by chapter, without conferring the chapter name. This can make quick referencing frustrating. My second, and an irritating problem, is the lack of an index. Should I decide in the future to see what Dr. Onishi had to say about the John Birch Society, or maybe the many references to Marjorie Taylor Greene, I am pretty much out of luck. This book is so packed with good and even valuable information on the development and ideas of White Christian Nationalism, an index would make it easy to utilize in future research.
Vintage, reprint edition, 2006
Review written March 7, 2023
Last month, deciding to explore an aspect of historical study I feel not only is undervalued but one I’m less familiar with, I ran across a rather valuable contribution. The book Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Vintage, 2007) was written by Carol Berkin, an academic at the City University of New York. Her focus on Women’s and Gender Studies, especially on the role of women in the American Revolution, has led to numerous papers, books, and textbooks. Several of her books, most recently A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism (New York: Basic Books, 2017) have been praised by Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly and the Wall Street Journal. She was the recipient of the Bancroft Dissertation Award in 1972 for her paper “Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an Anglo-American Conservative,” which was published in hardcover by Columbia University Press 2 years later.
The story of why she chose Women’s Studies for her academic odyssey is explained in a 1999 discussion in Philadelphia. She states
When I was going to school, there were no women in American history, except perhaps Martha Washington and Betsy Ross. And, when I went to graduate school, we were expected to write books about men just like the ones we had read. Happily, some of us said no.
In branching off from the old, tired ethic, her studies helped her find that women’s “experiences and their contributions as important to understand as those of their husbands, fathers, and sons” in the struggles against England and the crafting of the new republic.
The goal here will be to discuss my findings within this unique book, give examples of some of the most surprising revelations to me, and leave the reader with an overview of its scope and tone.
The War of Independence which separated England from its Colonies is a concept which evokes common imagery of warriors engaged in war, along with rooms of diplomats arguing and writing. These ideas often bring up images of men doing the shooting, diplomacy and writing of polity. Behind the scenes were the women who were the wives, cooks, farmers, slaves (both free and in servitude) who furthered the causes of independence, most often by supporting the household or business while the males were directly engaged in the effort.
Berkin here supports the idea that not only were women a direct and necessary part of the war effort, they played – in many cases here fully documented – direct engagement efforts as warriors (usually dressed as men), messengers, diplomats and, harrowingly, spies. Throughout, she poses illustrative episodes which brace the idea the War depended upon the heroic women just as much as the men, and that without both the direct and indirect involvement of women, the effort would have failed.
I began reading this work one chilly February night while my wife laid her head in my lap after heaving reactions to a medication. As I gently stroked her hair, I thought about her resolve, her strength. How would she have faced the situations women encountered during the transition from Colony to country? What would have been her strengths, weaknesses, accomplishments, failures? With each flip of the page I could only be thankful our lives are shared in the now; the stable American experiment they help bring about.
Berkin artfully sets the stage in the enticing Introduction. Telling us “there is much that is missing in the tales we tell” the long paragraph which follows hints of what is to come; from various home destructions with families shorn, and helpless children crying, to the screaming of women while soldiers violate their bodies. By the end of the first paragraph of the first page, I was enraptured. Her crisp writing in the Introduction (and followed through the entire book) placed me in smelly, blood-soaked makeshift hospitals and the creaking floors of homes with Loyalist meetings where matrons sympathetic to the Resistance quietly risked exposure to slip vital information to the other side.
“[L]ongstanding gender expectations” flew out the window in the less-structured social environs of the Colonies. Adjusting to unexpected and unknowable conditions allotted women roles they would be less likely to have assumed back across the Pond. From environmental plights, thievery, banditry, both hostile and hospitable natives, slavery and the horrors inflicted by English control and retribution, women stepped up to the task. This despite what was often outright misogyny, such as being written about as “disgusting” to their role in the actual armed conflict. Most interesting to me would be her mention of attitudes among male soldiers to women engaging in fighting. One remarkable passage recounts “women whose sex was discovered quickly were more likely to be punished severely, while women who saw combat before their sex was revealed sometimes drew praise.” I do not know what to make of this, other than to chalk it up to the quirks of whimsy.
Other stories of women serving as men in conflict include “[t]he legendary” Deborah Sampson, who was given pension after discovery. Also mentioned is Sally St. Clair, who was half black, and not discovered to be a woman until her death in battle. We are to be grateful for their service.
Most fascinating to me would be two aspects of female involvement. First, she devotes a full chapter to black people and their trials and tribulations, sweeping us through their bravery and changing societal attitudes. Although I feel the role of African Americans were well discussed elsewhere in the book, Chapter Eight, “The Day of Jubilee is Come” took me almost to tears when discussing the brutality, and moved me to elation in knowing the name of several outstanding people whose names – despite thinking I know more than the average person about American History – were new to my eyes. Second, some of the spy tales in Chapter Nine, “It Was I Who Did It” read like CIA spycraft. Lydia Darragh bravely listened in on a planning session being held in her home, and created a ruse to convince the English of her innocence, and Mammy Kate spent weeks washing clothes for Independence soldiers at a British fort before smuggling one of the soldiers in a laundry basket.
I am both surprised and certainly not surprised these stories and more are not part of the crafted Nationalist memory. But perhaps they should be. While reading Berkin’s lucid and artful writing, nearly minimalist in places with expository effluence where needed, I saw in my mind’s eye scenes which should be in our collective media. The Roland Emmerich film The Patriot, for instance, missed out on including these stories in its narrative.
While absolutely happy with my reading experience, I also read 2 reviews. J. M. Opal reviewed the book for The New England Quarterly and pointed out the foundational works of Mary Beth Norton and Linda K. Kerber, who apparently set the groundwork for Revolutionary Mothers. Since Berkin fails to include a bibliography, I can only assume these were referred to within the copious notes, as they are not mentioned in the Index. And since I use a red Pilot G-2 07 pen to mark (some) books while I read them, Opal pointed out a harrowing sentence from p. 134, where I drew a frowning face in reaction. Her reaction, I am certain, was similar to my own.
And teacher Katie Hickey Snyder has a review on the Website for the Urbana School District . It elaborates on the willingness of women to have their names associated with dissatisfaction against England, and how this upset norms of social status. Writing for other teachers, she concentrates on the use of source materials and nontraditional renderings of the histories we teach.
Both reviewers recommend this book. As do I.
The remarkable stories which unfolded helped me appreciate these remarkable women, their courage, resolve and endurance, which created the stable society we – including me and my wife – take for granted each day.
Arguments and Conclusion
If I were to take issue with this work, it would only be borne out of my own nitpickery. In a few places she mentions the famous Midnight Ride of April 18, 1775 to alert Revolutionaries of approaching forces. She mentions Paul Revere plentifully in relation to this, yet fails to tie the other 3 riders, thus cementing inconsistencies and fallacies common in textbooks (and popular media) of the event. While mentioning in another context William Dawes, she fails to mention at all Samuel Prescott or the rider who logged the most miles, Israel Bissell.
I did discover 2 spelling errors, on p. 98 and 141. Yet my major (and only real) problem with the whole fabric of this work (touched upon above) is what the book does not have. There is no bibliography. Consider it a personal quirk of mine that I love just reading a long list of references, yet here the practicality can be pointed. In J. M. Opal’s review, he mentions 2 authors which Berkin updates and elaborates on. Since neither name is in the Index, and since there is no bibliography, I cannot tell if these names (and thus works) were used here. So in taking on the task of investigation discovered both names as footnote 3 of the Introduction, after mentioning within groundbreaking studies.
Oh, me of little faith.
“American History.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, https://www.ushistory.org/us/historians/berkin.asp. Accessed February 22, 2023.
Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. Vintage Books, 2009, p. ix.
Berkin, op. cit., p. xvi.
Berkin, p. 60.
Berkin, p. 61.
Vol “Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for American Independence, by Carol Berkin (Review by J.M.Opal).” The New England Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 4, Dec. 2005, pp. 651–653., https://doi.org/10.1162/tneq.2008.81.issue-3. Accessed February 22, 2023.
American History Teachers’ Collaborative Book Review: Revolutionary Mothers, http://www.usd116.org/ProfDev/AHTC/resources/Reviews/KatieHickeySnyder.htm.
Accessed February 22, 2023.
Soteria: Salvation in Early Christianity and Antiquity: Festschrift in Honour of Cilliers Breytenbach on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday (Supplements to Novum Testamentum, 175)
Brill Academic, 2019
This important book on ancient salvation in the post-Hellenic world was released in 2019, and is still very expensive to purchase. I was able to get my hands temporarily on a copy through an interlibrary loan. Of course I scanned and made .pdfs of a few of the most important chapters.
Many references to obscure mss. and arcane art and rituals. Will provide valuable contributions to my next book of religious history.
Columbia University Press, 2019
Review written May 16, 2020
Being an Honorable Mention from the PROSE (Professionalism and Scholarly Excellence of the American Association of Publishers) Award in Biomedicine and Neuroscience in 2018, you can be assured of a good work combining cross disciplinary approaches. This will not disappoint. Well, okay, except maybe slightly.
E. Fuller Torrey is a psychiatrist with a prolific carrer, starting several organizations, both professional and social, having authored or co-authored over 200 papers, and with 21 books — most very well received — under his belt. So here, it should be no surprise that his wide-ranging insights have produced a single volume explanation of the hypothesis that the human mind is the origin and lifelong womb of the ideas associated with higher powers (gods, deities, agents, devils, angels, etc.) and attendant religions and rituals.
His moderately long introduction explains what he is most comfortable with, the human brain. Beginning with several referencing illustrations and long extractions from other professional works, he sets the basis for the volume to come. Exploring the different regions and offering an understanding of their differences and evolutionary development, his grounding is firm. With that, he launches directly into the timeline of human biological and socio-anthropological development, with Chapter 1 covering homo habilis, to Chapter 5, covering homo sapiens sapiens. Those 5 chapters give an elegant explanation of the differences in brain size and brain density, the differences in neural architecture (“gray matter (neurons) and white matter (glial cells and connecting fibers”), and how such factors as neural folding operate. Developing a cooperative development index between human complexity and the best modern scientific consensus of contemporaneous neurological and even archaic social changes, he compels a convincing argument connecting multiple realms of data into one compelling read.
Part 2, the last 3 chapters, is titled “The Emergence of the Gods”. Here, although his familiarity with the material is impressive, I would have liked to recommend he incorporate a bit more of the research into the early proto-human use of symbols, and the latest in neuro-archaeology. Having added a bit of Alexander Marshack instead of just a passing and almost dismissive mention, and Genevieve von Petzinger’s work would have firmed up the linear approach. Elaborating on recent advances in separating archaeological digging from post-excavation interpretation may have helped, as well.
As must be, he covers all the major early religious archetypes and does so only cursively, though fits the ritual matter with the grey matter. In Chapter 7, “Governments and Gods: A Theistic Self”, he does not differentiate between the various several civilizations of Mesopotamia, instead, lumping then under the rubric of “Mesopotamia” instead of their separate, independent and evolutionary independent elements, Sumeria, Akkadia, etc. Having done so, his points about theistic development and evolution, the changing and even trading of gods, and the expanding role of worship in societies as they struggle and grow, would have been much more solid and reliable.
The biggest problem with this work is one which I do seem to complain about often, a lack of bibliography. Yes, there are copious and well-formatted notes and references, impressively arranged, and sorted in a manner I would like to see far more often than I do. Yet a singular bibliography is a useful tool when arranging references to acquire at a later time, instead of doing so in the notes.
When non-theists such as myself are wont to give a short explanation for the irrational human development of the gods, we have always tended to paraphrase Petronius’ “Fear created the first gods”. In one easily readable volume, Torrey shows it’s a bit more complicated than that, and for anyone willing to join him for a mere 312 pages, they will find out how.
Harper Wave, 2018
Review written Jan 23, 2021
Alternative medicine embraces many things: treatments that have never been tested or have not been adequately tested; treatments that have been tested and shown not to work; treatments that are based on nonexistent phenomena such as human energy fields and acupoints; treatments such as homeopathy that would violate established scientific knowledge; and treatments that have been proven to work but that mainstream doctors have good reasons not to recommend.
Dr Harriet Hall MD, https://www.skepdoc.info/quotes/
Throughout the 389 pages of this book, I found several mentions of “science is not settled” about something where Lugavere was unwilling to make foundational claims, and he even places multiple qualifications about the progress of some medical studies into areas touched in the book. He points out the strength of the science he attests to hold to in the introduction with “Science is always unfinished business; it’s a method of finding things out, not an infallible measure of truth.”
His mother, falling into a state of Alzheimer’s/dementia, gave him impetus to worked for years with dozens of medical professionals to put together a book about brain health, because – as he points out throughout this book – brain health is health.
Nearly everyone who would benefit from this book has several questions, including:
— Why do modern diets have “plentiful calories with poor nutrient content and toxic additives”?
— What are the differences between ‘executive function’ and ‘processing speed’ for mental health?
— Why the following: “…it’s not the amount of fat you consume; it’s the type”?
— Why are canola, corn and soybean oils bad news for health and brain health?
— What is the most powerful way to boost neuroprotective hormones, and which food and dietary/life styles work symbiotically to keep you healthier?
— Why is high fructose corn syrup so dangerous?
Throughout, Lugavere does us a favor in the ways he gives verbal but visually-enticing descriptions of the myriad complex processes in the body as it absorbs and breaks down ingested food and uses it at the cellular and molecular level. He works hard to make the reader understand why something is as it is, and to this he does so with near perfection, suffering us with just a few odd metaphors and similes.
In several instances, he discusses in detail a scientific study from such medically peer-reviewed sources as The New England Journal of Medicine, Endocrine-Related Cancer, Neurotherapeutics, Behavioral Pharmacology, Journal of Nutrition, Nature, Science, and Journal of the American Medical Association, among dozens more. It is clear from the numerous references that Max did his homework. While telling you why something is the way it is, or why a certain chemical does what it does, his attempts to also explain “how” lead to one of the few criticisms in reviews; that it is too technical. Well, let me tell those critics that nearly every semi-complex component to the understandings in this book are explained elsewhere in the book, and the index can verify this. Also, has anyone heard of a dictionary or Google? I had only one word I had to look up, and if my patience allowed a few more pages, that search would not have been needed.
Another criticism of the book is one I’ll agree with. Throughout, he discusses an endless plethora of dietary components, and when it comes to the recipe section, there are only 11 entries. An expansion of cross-references would have been helpful, also.
When it comes down to it, I’ll mark this one with a strong 4.5 out of 5, as probably the most informative and engaging book on diet/lifestyle/nutrition I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying. And now it’s time for me to order his follow up book The Genius Life: Heal your Mind, Strengthen Your Body, and Become Extraordinary. If it’s as good, it also will prove to be a guide to using the idea of protecting the health of the brain as a way to provide overall health, with sensible and accessible information we can all benefit from knowing.
And soon, by blog will be updated with that review. Stay tuned.
Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006
Review written July 14, 2019
On p. 182 of Hurtado’s 2006 tome on early Christian manuscripts, their fragments, their studies and origins, he writes (regarding “Other Scribal Features”):
“I emphasize that I intend here merely adequate illustration of the phenomena in question, not an exhaustive listing of early biblical codices in which these features appear.”
Yet for an audience generally knowledgeable about Christian origins or the standards of manuscript studies (paleography) this work is nearly exhaustive, and provides a luxuriously readable — though sometimes bogged down in the exhaustive detail he professes against — study of what we can know about Christian origins based on early manuscripts.
Should anyone try to criticize this work, it would be the concentration on Egyptian manuscripts and fragments at the detriment of other regions. That is only because Hurtado follows the evidence. Egypt’s dry conditions have led to the discovery of thousands of parchment, vellum and papyrus evidences, especially a plethora of fragments and nearly complete codices in the trash heap at Oxyrhynchus. The study is dolled out fairly, not loosing sight of geographic region, however, but taking us into some of the vaulted archives of early Christianity, allowing us know the jargon and even get a cursory feel for methods of research.
He is here not even concerned much with the earliest of the earliest of the fragments of early Christianity, only with what the mss. and fragments of the first 4 centuries of the CE can tell us about Christians, how they worshiped and used the texts, and about Christianity itself and how it communicated across ideas and distances. Nowhere does he even mention P52 as the earliest known fragment (of John). With calm and evenhanded conveyance of his subject, he adeptly avoids providing bullets to those uber-literary Bible Thumpers who point to P52 as somehow providing proof of the entire Biblical canon. At times I get the feel he is disappointed in these literalists, but thankfully avoids entering the fray.
Chapter 3 is the most interesting. It’s titled “The Nomina Sacra”, a standard in (mostly Anc. Greek) mss. to abbreviate oft-repeating or sacred names/words. Commonly, most people in the Christian-dominated world recognize the Chi-Rho, an X bisecting the vertical stroke of a tall P. Though it is the most recognizable christogram today, it is not the earliest. Hurtado covers an interesting hypothesis that the earliest is actually a combination of a contraction and gematria, using a line over 2 or more Greek letters to make a number, in this case one with reflections back to numbers and words in Jewish writings, emphasizing the Jewishness of early Christianity. He fails, thankfully, to make any final decisions on such points throughout, but studiously offers arguments and counterarguments in a very democratic and yet scholarly manner, even providing alternative arguments, such as their use as visual cues used in finding sections of long mss., or use in devotion.
Throughout he has a running series of footnotes (even the Introduction has 30) where he provides both standard references and amazingly ADHD-scale details on exceedingly minor arguable points and fascinating provisos (I intimate this in a good way). There’s 551 footnotes and they, alone, provide incredibly detailed running narratives in each chapter. You will also find pie charts and bar graphs, an Appendix called “Christian Literary Texts in Manuscripts of the Second and Third Centuries”, and another: “Photographic Plates of Selected Manuscripts”. Included, also, we have suggestions for further readings, select online resources, and a very thorough small-print bibliography 15 pages long (my heart thumps at such things).
If you are an average Christian (or otherwise curious) reader without a standard level of background knowledge relating to the language of manuscript studies, this may be a bit of a difficult read. Should you already know some of the lingo, or you have the time, patience and resources to stop and expand your knowledge every time an unknown or unfamiliar concept comes up, then I can hopeful find this fine book next to Brent Nongbri’s “God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts” (Yale University Press, 2018) side by side in your exegetical library.
Grand Central Publishing, 2007
Review written June 16, 2019
Reinventing the vampire novel may not have been Octavia Butler’s intention, yet she created a very believable (as far a vampires go) blend of bloodsucker fiction with her last standalone novel, Fledgling (2005, Seven Stories Press). In this work, the vampires — collectively called Ina — have their own language, scripts and culture. And I’m sorry to disappoint you, these vamps cannot turn humans into Creatures of the Night. There is, however, an interesting symbiotic relationship between Earth’s 2 main species, Ina and human; one which increases the believability of the basic storyline, and still makes me wish I knew an Ina.
The storytelling is clear, and her writing style is sparse, securing only a minimum of words which allow the reader to visualize our protagonists’ environs and motivations, while giving us a first person narrative that is engaging and empathic. Shori is a black vampire, and without giving much away, that’s not her only engaging characteristic. Shori has a defendable story which begins with weakness and ends up with strength, while molding the invented characteristics of her bloodsucking lifestyle and its maintenance into a well thought narrative. This carries us well through the first 80% of the story before it begins focusing on a single event for the last several chapters. In a few occasions, the sparse writing with multiple characters becomes both confused and confusing. At the end of one chapter the writing lacks specifics on which humans are leaving a compound, but I pictured two characters leaving for a few days which were also the 2 companion characters of Shori at the beginning of the next chapter. The 2 very same humans at that point both were and were not involved in the beginning of that next chapter. I tried to assuage my confusion by going back to read the departure scene, and the unspecificity due to the sparsely worded writing style kept me confused.
The only major disappointment here is from the last several chapters, where there is a large Council of Judgment called to address the murders which happened to Shori’s family. Here, the suspicions molded through the first part of the book are given solidification during the 3 days of the Council meeting. With no surprises whatsoever in the last several chapters, the ending leaves us with a dry taste, wishing for, wanting for, any hint of an inventive twist, instead of the story we’ve been building up playing out exactly as we suspect.
Although enjoyable and inventive, this cannot get my highest recommendation; though with a 3.75 out of 5, I hope interested readers will try this genre bending tome.
Review written May 30, 2019
I cannot remember ever having to almost force myself through another non-fiction in order to gleam a few nuggets of wisdom. If we were mining for gold, this is not a vein of desire.
Timothy Insoll does indeed have a replete grasp of the topic. His contributions to Archaeology and World Religion reflected a much more accessible approach to the material, where the non-specialist could understand and gain valuable insight from the material. I feel confident in giving this criticism about this work, as it is only in the final chapter the direct implication that this work is written for degree-bearing archaeologists is given. Otherwise, everything else assumes it is for the knowledgeable non-specialist.
Despite this, there are indeed nuggets of wisdom, and although we are here discussing only 155 pages of wisdom, it is indeed a dense mine for gathering those nuggets. With a valuable bibliography, I will happily contribute 3 out of 5 stars in Amazon’s rating; but 3.5 if given the option. My suggestion is to read the awesome Prologue, Chapter 1 and the last 2 chapters. Then pick up and salivate over the erudite wisdom of Michael Willis’ The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual: Temples and the Establishment of the Gods.
Oxford University Press; New Ed edition (June 15, 2000)
Review written April 26, 2017
In the past 20 years I can hardly think of a tome I was so disappointed with as Beard and Henderson’s Classics: A Very Short Introduction. If by “Classics” they mean Classical Studies (and they do, despite never using that commonly-accepted term in this volume), a reader can leave the volume not really knowing the scope and meaning of the term. It’s prosaic touching of the subjects is quite ethereal, never really cutting into the meat, exposing the marrow of the subject. Despite bringing up good subjects in the later chapters, we are hardly given an overarching definition, and certainly not a 30,000 foot view.
Mary Beard is a first rate Classicist, so this is surprising. Her SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome* approaches brilliance. John Henderson, a fellow of Classics at King’s College, is also an art historian, and co-editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Art. They begin by giving us a POV walk into the British Museum, ending up in the room displays the frieze from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, Arcadia. Within the next several chapters, they do touch upon the wrongdoings and distractions purposefully foisted upon the inhabitants of the (at the time) semi-barren Arcadia, and also — in good fashion — do well in illustrating (in words and sketches) the problems museum officials had in determining which order the independently-sculpted pieces were to be reassembled. It is also properly noted that the friezes breed controversy to this day, not only for the deceptions surrounding their smuggling from Greece, but the order in which the panels should be re-arranged (the smuggler/archeologists didn’t take proper notes on the disassembly).
Yet these facts are given long treatment in a work which apparently is supposed to give “A Very Short Introduction” to what Classical Studies IS. No discussion of the pre-Classical Mediterranean Greek, including the Mycenaean and Minoan cultures, and their brilliance. The Linear B script, it’s semi-transference into later Greek, the main forms of Classical Greek, then their eventual influence on the Etruscan/Phoenician evolution of Latin; these items are nowhere even touched upon. No mention, even, of Magna Gracae. Most of the brilliant minds of Greece and Rome are not mentioned; religion and myth, inventions and social institutions, great and crooked leaders, all are glossed over with sometimes barely a mention. The subject’s role in the teaching of the humanities, the philosophy and everyday life in the Classical world are never even mentioned. The term “Greco-Roman World”, which is even mentioned in a 6th grade history book used in Texas, is within this introduction not used one single time. Of the c. 28 standard sub-subjects of Classical Studies (a.k.a. Classics), only about a dozen are touched upon here.
Lacking in scope and touching on humanities with a firecracker against an H-bomb, I cannot recommend, sadly, this ‘Very Short Introduction’.
*SPQR refers to the Latin term for The Senate and People of Rome, a phrase used by Livy and Cicero.
Berrett-Koehler Publishers; Expanded ed. edition (April 28, 2007)
Short single-volume treatise on Progressive values
Review written March 07, 2017
To me, this book has a rare unique feature: it is on the rare list of two different ratings. It 1) has a rating of 4 stars out of 5, and 2) is one of the few books I would recommend to each and every American.
If one single tome explains the reasons behind what Bill O’Reilly pejoratively calls the “SPs”, the Secular Progressives, this is it.
A must read.
Older & Archived Reads
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science
Mariner Books; 2008
Well-conceived non-illustrated tour of essential science for the literate and curious
Review written February 26, 2011
It is the height of misfortune that most of the people — young, especially — who would be most enlightened by this book will pass it by during their casual romp through Barnes & Noble. This tome is composed of words only, and lacks even a single illustration. What it lacks in illustration is balanced by insightful writing, creating crafted visuals illustrating in the mind’s eye the themes explored. For someone wanting a fun romp through the basics, I will call this indispensable.
Movie (&TV) Reviews
Reviews coming soon:
The Rise of Skywalker Coming soon, hopefully.
NO SPOILERS AHEAD
One may find themselves in a bitter state of disappointment should they venture to the theatres to see Ridley Scott’s latest big-screen action film, “Napoleon”. Disappointment, that is, if they were to expect a historically accurate telling of the French Emperor’s timeline.
Others will enjoy the “character study” aspect, using plot devices to explain interminable elements, with shortcuts to reveal — as well as a motion picture could — the complexities of interplay between charismatic leaders and their continually aversive bureaucracies. This gives us 2 aspects of inaccuracy; time-cutting and major FUBUs. One time-cutting flaw is forgivable; Napoleon married Marie Louise, who later provided progeny, nearly a full year after divorcing Josephine. Here, these are abutting events. Flawed, but forgivable.
Less forgivable is the main event at the beginning, the beheading of Marie Antoinette. It is improbable she walked, unsecured and unguided by troops, to the guillotine. Even worse is the presence of Napoleon Bonaparte, given he was 700km South on the French Riviera, at Toulon. There are a few more howlers, of course. This IS Hollywood. Yet rather than begrudgingly creating a list, I want to refer the reader to 2 links which do a superior job of it.
These OCC exceptions are attendant balm to the movie as movie. Though my knowledge of Napoleon (several books, term paper several lustrums ago) is not comprehensive, it is unlikely in person he was what Scott directs and Joaquin Phoenix portrays; doltish, uninspiring and sometimes introverted. In contrast with the realities of the man who became an Emperor, these contrasting aspects come off as outright confusing. Yet the script by David Scarpa and stylistic direction move the film along at an engaging pace, only barely reaching ennui. Often visually stunning, the negative aspects — thank my anal retentiveness — are outweighed. Think the Book of the Dead, where a feather and a heart balance a beam so the visitor to the Underworld can pass unobstructed to the Afterlife. This film will have a weighty afterlife in our common consciousness, with sayings bound to become oft-repeated, meme-bait in the making.
To once again touch upon the historical aspects, I will leave you with these two ultimately overruled negative critiques: 1) The cannonballing of the Egyptian Pyramids at Giza never happened; and 2) the real characters portrayed spoke little to no English. Perhaps we are to be thankful these are the worst guttings in an otherwise worthy semi-biographical production.
NO SPOILERS AHEAD
With a wiggle and an ecstatic whirl of his guitar-strumming hand, Elvis has entered the movie theatre. In a little over 2½ hours, we take a journey of over 40 years, partially seen through the events of The King of Rock & Roll – who also made influential moves into gospel, blues and R&B – but in a story mostly divulged through his grifting manager. The enigma of Col. Tom Parker, and just how much backhanded dealings he signed in Elvis’ name (including contract duplications between agencies and Parker with separate signings for Elvis to hide the true amounts Parker paid himself) were only revealed years after The King’s death. This film exposes a decidedly dark side to Parker’s dealings, yet as told through his eyes, while the narrative attempts the sympathetic; it leaves us precisely where we need to be. And in the end we wonder: with proper management, what kind of a long and marvelous future could have come from such a talented musician.
The photography and acting, makeup, production design and direction are as spot-on as can be. To make up an adjective, Elvis, the movie, was Spielbergian in depth and scope. I struggle to decide which aspect to praise first.
Acting. The titular role is played here by television actor Austin Butler. You may remember him as the murderous Tex from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, who in the end gets beaten to a pulp by LSD-stoned Brad Pitt. In interviews, he states he spent over 2 years working on the film, watching, reading and studying everything Elvis. And it shows. Although his resemblance to Elvis Presley is only a little more than passing (the jaw and lower face on Austin are thinner), yet through makeup, impersonation and just genius showbiz, those of us at least in their late 50s didn’t see a handsome young Hollywood actor projected on the screen; they saw Elvis. Or at least what is arguably the best filmed impersonation ever. We can tell within the first few minutes of his first on stage performance that Butler worked his skinny little ass off to nail that role … and he pulls it off, with the help of great direction, wardrobe, production design and cinematography.
The impersonation is so good it should provide a wakeup call to the industry. I’ll provide an important example. The half-baked movie Solo: A Star Wars Story told us of the adventures, roughly a dozen years before Star Wars: A New Hope (originally released in 1977 as Star Wars), of the character Han Solo. Between 3 directors and an otherwise talented Alden Ehrenreich, there seems to have been absolutely no look back at the 4 films already released to LOOK at the CHARACTER played brilliantly by Harrison Ford. NO attempt was made to replicate the facial stresses, the body movements and the stylization which made Ford’s portrayal so relevant. And anyone who doesn’t think Ehrenreich didn’t smile far too much to be a convincing Han Solo can reach out for an optometrist referral. On the other hand, as the screen shot below should show you, at least in the Disney+ series “Obi-Wan Kenobi”, a passing hint at portraying the same character was made.
image coming soon
Direction. So now we move to Baz Luhrman, whose brilliant visual/audio style, combined with genius-level storytelling devices, place this movie on an Oscar-worthy plane. I’ve been a fan of Luhrman since 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, and to me, his interpretation of Romeo + Juliet knocks Franco Zeffirelli’s 1969 telling out of the water in every way. Still, IMHO, Luhrman has not redeemed himself from the shitshow Moulin Rouge! (2001), which is one of the few films I ever have actively loathed.
Luhrman is an absolute master of storytelling devices. To give one example, during a transitional time in Elvis’ early career, a stack of the same newspaper is flipped, taking the still image of Presley giving an interview and moving them, GIF-like, while we transition to the interview. Since I won’t give any spoilers here – I want you to see this film in the theatres or on a really good audio/visual system – I’ll not give away anything else.
So back it is, to the story. While the mild and subtle narration from Parker (Tom Hanks) attempts to be sympathetic from his point of view, what we experience is an abused artist taken at every turn away from people who would do Elvis best, with puppet strings pulled by a master manipulator. Self-serving Parker, who it is slowly revealed is not a “Colonel”, a “Tom” or a “Parker”, was as much of a fraud as DJTrump, and would have been a perfect fit for politics, except he didn’t have citizenship in any country. We never do learn within why Parker (nee Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) fled his native Holland, and several researchers surmise it may have to do with an unsolved murder there. Instead, the film stick to the torturous relationship between the huckster and the artist, with Parker knowing perfectly well when to and not to make decisions, leaving the bone-headed arrangements for Presley’s inept and bad-with-money father (who, IRL, died just 2 years after Elvis).
This film is executed with a very well-planned and well accomplished form: scenes run their proper lengths to illuminate breadth and depth, with master auteur Luhrman at the helm.
Call me Nostradamus, but I predict come Oscar and BAFTA time next year, Elvis, the movie, will not be forgotten. And both the movie and the person will once again take the center light on stage.
YOU WILL BE WARNED BEFORE SPOILERS
The original cinematic sensation Ghostbusters (1984) was a fresh, inventive family-friendly flick which has become a social staple; its jokes in modern culture are still with us, from marshmallows coming to life to the saying “Who ‘ya gonna call?”
Followed a few years later by a sequel, with moderate success, the film franchise sat dormant, awaiting a reboot, rehash or similar unoriginal Hollywood nextploitation (my neologism).
Reading through the background on Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021), it is clear Bill Murray flip-flopped more than a politician. While a third film was in pre-development, he “refused to commit to the project. After the death of cast member Harold Ramis in 2014, Sony instead produced a female-driven reboot directed by Paul Feig and released in 2016.”[i] That film was an epic disaster Irwin Allen would have been proud of, being even shallower than Lake Mead has been this summer. Besides also being uninventive and uninventively also called Ghostbusters (2016), that film – a female-lead reboot — ended up having Murray in a role similar to professional paranormal investigator Joe Nickell. That loserfest was predictable, horribly trendless and a magisterial showcase of wasted talent and opportunity.
Thankfully not being tied at all to that failure, Afterlife breathes some new life into the franchise, and unsurprisingly set us up for a sequel which may or may not be made.[ii]
The story involves the estranged daughter, Callie Spengler, of a Ghostbuster seen at the beginning of our flick taking his last breath. At the same time he dies and leaves his house to her, she just happens to be so financially broke that she and her kids are being evicted from their apartment. So they pack up the Subaru and hightail it to dead ol’ dads’ rural dirt farm. This sort of coincidence peeves me, and takes this down a notch, but luckily there’s enough going past this to make up for such unlikely correlations. Callie has both a 15-year old son and a 12-year old daughter. Both have their well-defined personalities and subplots, and somehow find out they are part of a plan which involves saving the world.
Since this one is a follow up to Ghostbusters II (1989), it reasonably follows plotlines from that story. At one point in the proceedings, however, we are led to an underground temple, visually identical to the end scene apartment building roof from the first movie. For a few moments I thought I was going be disappointed at a replay of that iconic sequence. Quickly – and thankfully – this film did veer off into new plotlines instead of being another unoriginal Hollywood rehash.
Before getting into spoilers, I do want to recommend this sequel, giving it 7.25 stars out of 10.
And, of course, there is a Marvel-style Easter egg, so stay after the credits.
But. There are plot holes big enough to drive a planetoid through.
The younger sibling, Phoebe (well played by young thespian Mckenna Grace), is a bookworm and an inventive, science-loving and mechanically-inclined (much like her unknown grandpa) genius, whose curiosity is greater than her fear. The boy, who is 15 going on 17, follows his hormones more than his wits.
So they move to this very small and very rural Oklahoma town at the beginning of summer. The boy gets a job at a soda shop (with very good reason) and the smart girl has to go to summer school. SAY WHAT? That doesn’t make any sense. The only reason the character that shouldn’t have to go to summer school actually goes to summer school is an ill-contrived plot device: so the science nerd can meet the teacher. Played by Paul Rudd, he’s a lone seismologist who is in that town because of localized tremors without scientific explanation. He is a science teacher, passionate about science and with maybe 2 dozen summer school students, doesn’t teach any science, and only shows old VHS tapes of crappy horror movies. His lack of enthusiasm to teach science frustrates me in the Age of Faux News and QAnon.
Another plot hole – and I admit I may be wrong about this – is a mineshaft. It’s at the top of a mesa. As illogical as that sounds, the reason may be expedient for the story, but I’m not the only one in the theatre who noticed it.
You will see old faces, and the well-used repeat of old, familiar lines. If you’re a fan of the original movie, see this in the theatre (Dolby Cinema is great). Otherwise, when you do have the chance, make sure your viewing venue is worthy of the popcorn munching show.
It’s a story as old as cosmic dust: success breeds more attempts at success. A Quiet Place (2018) was a beautifully crafted horror film, revealing it’s plot in a slow and easy burn. Even its protagonist, a sightless monster attracted to tear apart humans who can be found only when they make noise, is craftily revealed only in flashes at first, but on full display during our climax. It touches on themes of survival, group cohesion, the power of love and its doom-bound sacrifice.
AQPPII tries and almost succeeds at being as good, yet IMHO in its attempt at greater complexity comes directorial tumult. This is not to say that John Krazinski’s directing is poor, indeed I consider him to be a rising star in movie directing. Yet combined with a script that tries to achieve too much at the same exact time, I cannot help but think the constant switching between scenes at one key sequence and at the very end misses the mark on a few occasions.
This is both a prequel and a sequel to AQP. The first ½ of the first reel tells the story of our characters in AQP before the events of that film, while introducing a new character to us in the form of Cillian Murphy, who finally and perfectly plays a decent guy for once. The first film’s settlement becomes abandoned, for a reason never made believable, with a new setting in its place, new situations and of course Cillian Murphy, whom we met earlier. The flow and progress are not as tense and enjoyable as before, while some of the same setups occur multiple times.
Despite the inevitable trip-ups with increased complexity, the film is now entrenched as part of a successful film franchise, and most likely more sequels and spin-offs are already in the planning. Please do see AQPPII. But if you wait until it’s out of the theatres, I won’t judge you too harshly.
YOU WILL BE WARNED BEFORE SPOILERS
Confusion abounds in the latest installment of the Saw franchise. This is the 9th movie in the series, and attempts to separate itself from the previous movies while also being aware of the events within. And while being even more of a cop-centered drama than Saw II, it taps into the prevailing social justice angst against police by concentrating solely on them and their deeds.
Chris Rock performs his role rather well as the police detective who has his whole department against him. This is played through a directorial over-emphasis on the sneers and backhanded insults of his fellow cops, with cheesy micro-plots and common – almost tiring – tropes. His father, a former district sergeant, is Samuel L. Jackson, who must be under contract to be in every 7th film made right now. Max Minghella, from the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale”, is so emotionless and evenhanded in his performance, it’s difficult to figure out if the directing geared his persona in this manner or if he’s just a shitty actor. For me, it meant figuring out parts of the ‘twist’ early on.
The setting also seems to have changed. These movies always have the police cruisers and badges carry the monikers “Metro Police” or “South District”. The first movie gives us 2 indications of setting: a license plate clearly from New Jersey, and a shot of Washington DC. Yet this one is clearly set in Philadelphia, and the familiarity carries over to the new location. This is important because unlike actual police detective procedures, the top-notch detectives never contact previous departments which have had to deal with Jigsaw killings. The events here are copy-cat. And with reference back to Jigsaw, our games begin.
Fans of police dramas will enjoy this movie more than fans of the horror aspects of the franchise. But if the ending makes the movie, then the ending unwound this Spiral. I won’t be so bold as to point out exactly who the coordinator of the major mayhem is, but that person is – at the very end – seen by several police going into an elevator. This makes me wonder what will be happening for what I am certain will be sequels. The killer is now known, which will make it more difficult for the killer to operate.
With enough meandering threads through this loose shoelace of a plot, I can only recommend this one to the most die-hard fans of the franchise. If you want action, go see Godzilla vs. Kong. If you want body horror, turn on your Roku and see Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor. If you want ghoulish horror, see the slightly better – yet imperfect – Army of the Dead.
I’m not sure I’d care if Spiral swirls down the drain.
YOU WILL BE WARNED BEFORE SPOILERS
Zack Snyder is legendary, yet still relatively young in his career. When you hear of a Zack Snyder film, you know you will be treated to craftily-built scenes, shots with both slo-mo and speed ramping, maybe even the occasional subject out of focus. He is known for his exciting, engaging style of filmmaking. Ned Kuczmynda on MovieBabble called his 300 (2007) “probably his most atmospherically brilliant.” I would agree, and even say, in most cases “atmospherically elegant.” His other films have also had a patina of dinginess, darkness and subtly stark brutality in line with each movie’s intended tone. On the utterly divisive side, his Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice (2016) was considered a reckless hodgepodge by many (but one I actually liked more than most of my fellow fantasy fans).
Along with the flurry of zombie movies and TV/streaming which sprouted from the success of “The Walking Dead”, knowing Snyder was going to tackle this horror subgenre was both exciting news, and yet another sad Hollywood example of success begetting success, hooking the major studio mimeograph money machine up to a turbine engine, churning film after film with lockstep – dare I say zombie-like — predictability.
So here’s the setup. Las Vegas is closed off, a high barrier of shipping containers surrounds the city, and refugee camps line the outside of the zombie wall.
The plot is simple. The owner of one of the casinos has $ 200 million in cash in the main vault. He hires former mercenary Scott Ward (played by Dave Batista, Drax from the 2 [soon to be 3] Guardians of the Galaxy movies) to lead a team to the vault, and hopefully get out alive, able to keep and divvy up $ 50 million between them. Batista hires a crew, starting with a helicopter pilot, since there just so happens to be a helicopter on the roof of the casino, and others to help break the safe and defend the team. One of his team is former(?)/current(?) love interest Maria Cruz, played by the absolutely lovelylicious Ana de la Reguera.
Scott’s daughter also happens to be in on the exploitations, and typical daddy/daughter astrictions play themselves out (“I’m coming with you”, “No way in hell are you coming with me”…).
Army of the Dead does try to be different. Here, for one instance, there are 2 levels of zombies. We have the unthinking ghouls, who are somehow mostly stacked in neat piles so our team doesn’t have to walk on them, and then the alpha zombies, who have a society, caste system, love and pregnancy. Once the containers are breached and our team gets to journey inside the exclusion zone, one of the team mates, who had been inside the zone several times and is the official unofficial tour guide, mentions the neatly-stacked and desiccated zombie bodies. She notes they only come alive with rain. There’s one fucking terrifying missed opportunity. Who wouldn’t have loved to see that?
Other flaws include predictability, overworn tropes, a tittle of flat-falling humor chucked in for shits ‘n giggles, and a barely understandable love triangle between the former mother of Ward’s daughter and Cruz that is both confusing and with poorly defined characters. At the end, Ward’s daughter risks the team’s lives to rescue some members of the camp outside the container wall. So we expect them to be part of the ending. Instead, when the escape copter crashes, it’s only the pilot, Ward and his daughter. The other 2 people in the rescue helicopter are not shown, not even given a second thought, and no explanation for their absence is given.
Here, style wins over substance. I think of what AotD could have been.
My review? Kinda’ good, but nowhere near great.
Reviewed Jan 20, 2021
NO SPOILERS AHEAD
I’ve been saying since ‘The Mandalorian’ first graced our streaming internet waves (my neologist talents once again arise: “i-waves”, like “airwaves”, but for the internet age), that it’s an example of what happens when fans make entries into the STAR WARS galaxy, not boards of directors. Actor/producer/director John Favreau has become a large player in film and television, and with proven ability, he collected talented writers and producers to make his pet project, based on a bounty hunter character similar to Boba Fett, whom we meet in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
The second season, though still a complete treat for STAR WARS geekazoids such as myself, has a bit of an “episodic” feel, pun unintended. So our main character, a Mandalore — a special class of bounty hunter outfitted with nearly invincible armor — is on a quest (no spoilers). So in each episode, he is acting on information from the end of the previous episode: “go to planet x, there you will find y“. Planet x is where he goes, and when he finds y, there’s a bargain proposed. The planet, city, or character is having, right at that time, a specific problem that the Mandalorian (a.k.a. “Mando”) is drafted to help with. Whether it’s a giant worm, an unjust authoritarian leader, or problems with The Empire, Mando helps, gets cooperation or information from y to advance to the next step of his episodic journey.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
The ending of S2 is what we hoped for, and the few familiar retreads are worth a bit of bitterness for the sweet taste of satisfaction.
Reviewed Jan 20, 2021
NO SPOILERS AHEAD
If you give two shits about having at least a modicum of accuracy in the science in your science fiction, spend your time doing anything other than watching THE MIDNIGHT SKY.
Though I’ll acknowledge the set design, special effects and acting, the plot is so unengaging and thin, a scanning electron microscope wouldn’t be able to find it.
Reviewed Jan 30, 2020
NO SPOILERS AHEAD
Right now, matched with India, my favorite foreign land for cinema is Korea. When it comes to dark comedic thrillers, Korean cinema in one year releases more originality than Hollywood could hope to churn out in a lustrum. And from that enchanting land, Bong Joon-ho, one of the country’s most celebrated directors, has a series of incredible films under his belt, several of which I have had the pleasure of viewing.
First, The Host (2006) was a different take on B-grade 1950s style monster movies, where sludge which is radiocative, toxic and vile, creates a creature feature wreaking havoc on Tokyo…er, Seoul. This is the biggest money-making movie in S. Korean history, and did very well for a short run here in the States. Just a few months after seeing The Host, a pal recommended Snowpiercer (2013), which has a ridiculous premise: all of humanity is on a train which travels around the planet, taking 1 year for each circumnavigation. My response: WTF? But my pal was right on, and Snowpiercer is brilliant; full of deep social commentary and a (rather) believable train system isolated and self-perpetuating for humanity’s long haul through a frozen world. Oh, and it stars Captain America.
Now Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has crawled into theaters, and instead of creating sci-fi or mild horror, he has fully immersed himself in the dark comedy and dramatic thriller themes, accentuated by several horrifying moments. Without giving anything away, a stroke of luck for a young man who should have been in college turns out to be, one-by-one, a stroke of luck for his sister, father and then mother. The whole family slyly takes over the important roles — tutors, driver and cook — of a credulous family of very wealthy snobs with their single-family enclave home built by a famous architect. Yet the home has secrets, and we see that the wealthy family’s beaming innocence means they pass over crazy enigmas by, for instance, not even investigating what they call faulty wiring. Since it doesn’t directly effect the shallow parents, these non-normal problems in the home hide sinister slumberings beneath the modern veneer.
At just the point where I began to ask myself where this film is going, a doorbell rings, and within moments all craziness breaks out, with around 30 minutes of close calls and comedic visualizations bested only by Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Briefly, calm returns to the cast before the corkscrew ending, a bizarre sequence of uptight calumnies, 3 murders, a newsworthy missing person story, and an adventure in the value of being a Cub Scout.
Blending comedy and wound-up suspense is difficult for filmmakers to master, but Joon-ho is obviously a meticulous crafter; blending here is balanced and feels natural. His well designed photographic sequences make for a blend of vibrancy and subtlety, each where needed. The meticulousness of the film includes the fantastic home in the movie being built from scratch, entirely designed and built just for this flick.
I recommend taking a trip to Korea. And with this movie you can have one of its most brilliant filmmakers as your guide.
Review posted to site Jan 20, 2021 (viewed Dec 25, 2020)
NO SPOILERS AHEAD
Movie sequels tend to fall into a few categories, easily definable. While only a very few are better than their originals — and this is not one of those — there are limitations; frameworks which are adhered to; the development and use of characters, continuations of storylines, and the progression of time.
Here, some of those, to good effect, are tossed out the window. As far as categorizations go, this has a fair blend of direct sequel, being a continuations of characters, and one of displacement, where the characters are in new, unique settings of geography or time. Here, our lovely heroine is nearly 40 years in the future, looking like she’s aged not a single day (she is, after all, Wonder Woman!).
The setting has changed, also, with the first and excellent film being set entirely in Europe, she is now working at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as a specialist in ancient objects of some sort. Her title — and what she’s doing there — isn’t exactly clear.
Although Patty Jenkins’ direction is superb, taking the mundane and making it glorious and enticing, the flatness of this film suffers from what I call justsohappensness. Another way to put it, just so happens. It just so happens that Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s mundane persona, meets Barbara Ann Minerva, a shy and stumbling wallflower on the day the events in the film begin. It just so happens that the FBI is also leaving a bunch of artifacts at the Smithsonian for the team to give a report on. It just so happens that this is right up both of their specialties. It just so happens that one of the objects is a Dreamstone, giving those who hold it while making a wish have that wish granted. It just so happens that Barbara, in her attempt to be less uncomfortable in her own skin and more like the suave, confident and foxy Diana, turns into one of two rivals for Wonder Woman.
One of the problems coming into the film is how they are going to bring back Steve Trevor, who died in the first film. Wont to give anything away, it is decently explained, though with far more flaws than other similar ventures into similar plotlines, ala BIG or any of the myriad incarnations of FREAKY FRIDAY (or PRELUDE TO A KISS or THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND or ……). Here, there are implications which are not addressed, and Jenkins has acknowledged a bitter flavor to some feminist interpretations.
Although I will recommend WW84 (its stylization), don’t expect such greatness as the original. The soundtrack includes incidental music from a very creative time in progressive pop rock, while the score was composed by Academy Award winning Hans Zimmer (who has an asteroid named after him). The film with a long but lively sequence of the young Diana, where she learns a hard lesson she carries with her through life. Had the rest of the movie continued the confounding smoothness and creativity of the first sequence, perhaps critics wouldn’t have such umbrage over the final results.
Recommended, but with presumptive caveat firmly in hand.
Dir: Rian Johnson
Reviewed Dec 24, 2019
NO SPOILERS AHEAD
While not being all it’s chopped up to be, there is a fantastic ensemble cast helping make this effort worthwhile, all giving sharp performances within a twisting, convoluted script.
One main flaw, however, prevents this from being serrated higher [yes, that was a pun]. Since my wife and I are both in the medical field, we just looked at each other over our glasses at the flaw in logic. I don’t want to ruin it here, but maybe one day I shall post it in a collapse below.
I have 2 recommendations for similar movies which are far superior (oddly, they both star Michael Caine):
— Sleuth (1972) ( IMDB || Wiki ) [this was re-made in 2007, not seen]
— Deathtrap (1982) ( IMDB || Wiki )
Hell House LLC
Dir: Stephen Cognetti
Reviewed Oct 24, 2019
NO SPOILERS AHEAD
Currently available through streaming services Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu and iTunes, Hell House LLC[sic] is a unique take on the overwrought subgenre of ‘found footage’ movies which have proliferated like teenage rabbits since The Blair Witch Project. Here you will find a believable backstory and a decent reason and explanation why someone is taping the organizational lowlights during the transformation of an abandoned hotel into a Halloween attraction.
Yet several flaws persist, despite what was obviously a tremendous amount of detailed planning and well-wrought enactments. Footage is played more than once of a member of the staff running past people on the tour; she runs through a double door leading to a staircase, and the double doors simply push open at the corner of a hallway in a haunted house. Anyone who has been to haunted houses know one of the attractions is testing and trying where you can and cannot go. These doors would have been an easy diversion for attendees to find and open with no locks, signs or otherwise, despite the thin colored tape on the floor to guide the tour.
The group of entrepreneurs who go from place to place setting up haunted houses have found this haunted ex-hotel, and after several days, get the lights on. Yet during the day when the group is inside setting up props, preparing festivities and simply moving through the rooms of the main level, lighting is not a problem. Yet at night, when strange noises or other frights make our cautious group survey these surroundings, they somehow forget that the light switches work. Obviously, that’s to up the creep factor, but I’m simply not buying it.
Yet I recommend this one, especially for low-gore fans, and those sick of the genre wanting a different twist.
Dir: Todd Phillips
Reviewed Oct 3, 2019
JOKER – profiling a listless plunge into delirium – starting at the halfway point
ONLY A TINY SPOILER AHEAD
Known to get into his roles, Joaquin Phoenix states he lost 52 pounds (23.5 kg) in anticipation of his role as Arthur Fleck, a dis-associative outcast comedian wannabe, who lives with and bathes his mother. He is socially awkward and ever slipping down the drainpipe of delusional dementia. As we meet him, he’s already stepping off that curb.
Phoenix is perfect here, as the delusional misfit dances awkwardly, yet in his mind gracefully, and whose injuries become a reflection of the society he disdains more with each passing painful day. Todd Philips’ direction is crafted and visually disturbing at times, while the pace is slow and measured, a perfect accompaniment to Fleck’s descent.
Yet by the end, I would have expected just a bit more . . . substance. Though the eventual arrest of fleck and his injured rescue from the back of a police vehicle from a clown-mask clad throng of rioters shows Joker has become a revered icon of revenge and hatred, I visualized in my mind where the movie would go, taking things to a new level, symbolizing the wrongness of the oppressive Gotham in its lesser days, showing us Joker’s attachment to the movement he unwillingly created.
Yet we are given a bit more, though it’s not . . . again, I struggle for a word . . . significant. Significance. Substance. Lacking these in the end are the only 2 minor letdowns, yet getting there is a near stunning panoply of character and change.
Dir: Michael Engler
Reviewed Sept 22, 2019
WARNING: NOTHING BUT SPOILERS AHEAD
There are few surprises in the main takeways from “Downton Abbey; The Motion Picture” (snicker). Carson is called in to save the day. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, and Isobel, Lady Merton, have verbal fisticuffs. There are questions of legitimacy and inheritance. Lady Edith Crawley has a fantastic body. And in typical fashion of 1927 England, Barrow discovers there is such a thing as a men-only club and is promptly arrested.
Oh, and the King and Queen will be staying during their visit to the region.
Beautifully photographed and lavishly set with stunning detail, just like the series, most of the movie involves itself with petty comeuppances and emotional hyperbole: this butler worrying why the kitchen assistant hasn’t set a date for their wedding, and minor household accessories go missing. Gee, I wonder if these inconveniences will work themselves out in the end. Oh, and Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley is getting so old she regales her coquetries with stories about the time she met Archimedes.
Yet DA to me both doesn’t and does feel like the show itself, of which I’ve seen the entire run. I would add it doesn’t feel the same without Lily James’ Lady Rose MacClare, who may have been mentioned somewhere, but with the stumpy English accents, some details become muddled; she may have been mentioned, as her role by the end of the series, which ends only slightly before the events here, isn’t minor. Maybe she did “Yesterday” (see review elsewhere on this page) instead of the same-old same-old.
Want to know what this film is? Just watch any 2 episodes of the series, and you will be treated to the same interesting and mildly mellow fare. Nothing here earns a $ 12 admission price. My recommendation is to see it; when you can turn on the subtitles.
Dir: Andre Ovredal
Reviewed Aug 16, 2019
NO SPOILERS AHEAD
The film version of Alvin Schwartzs’ YA tome “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”, with the imprimateur of horror and fantasy legend Guillermo del Toro, looked like a certain hit. Well, since there’s no accounting for taste, at least a good flick to begin the early Halloween season.
Mediocrity, however, is a beast which needs beating back despite appearances. In filmdom, that beast manifests itself in lazy storytelling, unnecessary subplots, weak development and tired tropes. Here, we have a mild mix of most of these problems, yet none are overwhelming enough to turn it into a crudfest.
Rural small town local yokels in Pennsylvania are predictably 1) a female goth, 2) a boy passing through who like the goth, 3) a bully, and 4) the town cop. Now given this you should not be surprised by this, as it is not too unpredictable to figure out who will be the first to get killed, by a scarecrow he beats with a bat at every convenience, which slowly terrorizes the bully on — another predictability — Halloween night.
That most terrifying of all nights is also when our goth and the out of towner visit an otherwise unfindable cellar in the town’s menacing abandoned manse. Within, she steals a journal of the woman who was sheltered within almost her entire life. Goth girl gets home, and stories start writing themselves in the diary; stories which become true as they are being written.
Though the unfolding stories, there are a few highlights. The Jangly Man monster is a collection of body parts which fall from a fireplace and assemble themselves in what is the coolest part of the movie. Oh, and let’s not forget the young actors, most especially, the lovely Zoe Colletti as the goth girl, who are — like the young actors in IT: PART 1: THE LOOSERS CLUB — the best part of the movie. I see several careers blooming.
Yes, I know it’s based on a YA novel, but this horror movie is less scary than an old episode of Scooby Doo. If you have an 11 year old to occupy with mindnumbing media, place them in front of this snoozefest.
Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Reviewed Jul 26, 2019
NO SPOILERS AHEAD
At the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS [sic], Standartenführer Hans Landa, in full military regalia, knocks on the door of a small, wooden home in the French countryside. The homeowner is hiding Jews from capture by the SS, and both characters know it. The terse discussion between the characters played on for several minutes with Landa, full of his own ambition and egotism, delivering his side of the parlay slightly overacted, attempting to intimidate the dairy farmer and cajole a confession or find a flaw in the homeowner’s narrative. Landa played with the homeowner, and the camera, that there’s more behind the narrative. The tension builds to a tight wind before being released in a scene which is only slightly Tarantino-esque, making you want for more, and setting the pace for the rest of the film. The scene helped secure actor Christoph Waltz the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe, the Best Actor statuette at Cannes, and more.
The delicate interplay between characters, usually with high-strung tension leveled with humor, and interspersed with both expected and unexpected violence, is a hallmark of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, both as director and writer. He spent 2 movies getting to the well-played scene where Uma Thurman actually does KILL BILL. But throughout, along with his attention to detail and hallmark non-linear style, have made for expectations which made his audience – me included – excited for his latest effort, ONCE UPON A TIME IN … HOLLYWOOD [again, sic].
This time, drop the über-violence, non-linear timeline, and character interplays wound so tight, and we have this film. OUAT…IH has the detail, certainly, along with (arguably) far too many long, drawn out moments, great dialogue and maybe not much else. Oh, except an alternative take on a tragedy that played out in the Hollywood Hills in the summer of 1969. It is an alternative I think we all wish were reality.
The first half hour contains just ridiculously long dialogues without the panache, unrequited tautness or even the brilliance we’ve come to expect. As more characters arrive on the scene and become developed, we pick up speed a bit, but even I, who loves long movies so much he had a long movie database attached to his vampire movie Website (maybe I’ll put them up again one day). Yet even I will say this one needs to be gutted; about 30 minutes of useless micro-detail and extended dialogue scenes which don’t contribute to the film need to go, along with several too-long useless shots, IMHO.
There are great performances here. The two main leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, have great, believable chemistry together. But the outstanding performance here is from Julia Butters, who at 10 years of age was called by Esquire the films’ “Breakout Star”1. Yet at the end we are left with the feeling of having spent 161 minutes seeing crafted dialogue, well-shot SOCAL scenery and a great soundtrack with little other payoff. The end, which is only partially violent compared to other QT entries, is satisfying, and the film’s only release. Yet after it, asking about the entire film’s drawn out timing, I asked myself “That’s it?”
I would say, this flick is better than THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but far from the brilliance of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, PULP FICTION, RESERVOIR DOGS or even TRUE ROMANCE (which Tarantino wrote but was directed by Tony Scott, RIP). Since we are all Tarantino fans (aren’t we?) do see the movie. But be sure your expectations are set down a notch.
- https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/a28510307/julia-butters-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-child-actress-interview-leonardo-dicaprio-scene/ ↵
Dir: Danny Boyle
Reviewed Jun 29, 2019
I remember that shocking Monday in December.
I was 15 years of age and came home, turned on The Riff ra-da-dio, set down my homework assignments and started going through my mail. It was a half-day at my high school, and I was joyous.
Like any situation in radio or television advertising, you know something is amiss when an advertisement, the money source to pay the bills, is interrupted. This day was no ordinary day. The announcement from one of WRIF’s dour sounding rock and roll DJs was a slap in the face to all peace-love-and-happiness-loving people. John Lennon was dead. Not by natural causes, or for the reasons narrow minds would naturally pounce on — drugs — but by a handgun-wielding murderer who apparently killed John for no known reason. (As an aside, with several classmates the next day in tears, I stated it was probably a Republican who committed the crime, and I was right.)
That murder — of the artist, activist, author, and ostensibly most prolific musician of The Beatles — changed me. I dropped to my knees and wondered why anyone would kill a man so dedicated to peace, showcasing the necessity for that position; becoming an embodiment of the need for the very advocacy for which he stood — and unwittingly gave his life — to advance. I became more cynical after his murder, more dedicated to the values Lennon represented, more careful in my ready acceptance of others; colder. I became more sensitive to ideas of hatred, possibly even more dichotomous in my worldwide outlook.
The musical genius of the super-super-duper group The Beatles and their legacy is the focus of the movie “Yesterday” (which I saw yesterday). Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a frustrated musician who finally gives up on his dreams of making it big, with far too many failures behind him. Fans of BBC soap operas may recall Patel’s decade-long role in ‘EastEnders’ (I’m more of a ‘Coronation Street’ guy myself), so he has the acting chops to execute the role well, believably shifting between emotions of musical elation to guilt-riddled angst about his deceptions.
Catapulted into a world where only he remembers the musical legacy of The Beatles, his character realizes he knows a crapload of music he can claim as his own. Despite the absolute improbability of any worldwide switch-over where all electricity goes out across the globe (including bus headlights), where The Beatles, Coca-Cola and Harry Potter never existed, director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”) place just the right amount of crazy cool scripting gadgets to smooth the way through the improbabilities (I’m tempted to end this sentence with “and into our hearts”, but I won’t).
Thankfully, the film sticks to its guns, not falling for the cheap scripting shortcut used in “Jacob’s Ladder”, “Donnie Darko” and “Sucker Punch”. That is what I expected, and thankfully this film delivers more, while still having enough plot holes to drive a planet through.
If you are a fan of The Beatles, even of silly rom-coms despite knowing the plot, see “Yesterday” today, maybe even tomorrow. I give 7.5 stars out of 10. That’s actually high for me, so also a recommendation.
That terrible day in 1980 nearly brought tears to my eyes in the third reel. I wondered what kind of world I would prefer to live in. Would I want what I have? A world with the Fab Four, or the one shown to us here?
I’m not sorry, John, to say I’m glad you met Paul.
BIRD BOX (2018-Netflix Original)
Dir: Susanne Bier
Reviewed Jan 16, 2018
The hype is not worth the type.
THE VOID (2016)
Dir: Steven Kostanski, Jeremy Gillespie
Reviewed Oct. 6, 20186
With several recent YouTube videos recommending this title, with no apprehension I checked this lovely movie out last night. And one of these days, I’ll finish writing this review.
Dir: Ruben Fleischer
Reviewed Oct 4, 2018
Several recent Marvel franchise films recently have been incredibly good. Namely, Black Panther (which surprised nobody when it won Best Picture at the Oscars), Avengers: Infinity Wars (which I actually thought was better . .) and … This flick does not keep up to those standards.
Not having read the Venom comic, maybe I approached this movie with expectations it will give me the adventure, story and compassion I need to appreciate the arc. Eventually it does this in bite-sized segments, but only in the latter half. During this later half, the character, now well developed, begins to show his true self, and we realize the Venom creature inhabits a perfect host for its personality, with an appealing blend of humor and smart, believable quips, and arguments between the creature and the person (played exceptionally well by …).
# 33 #
SUPERMAN V. BATMAN: THE DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)
Dir: Zack Snyder
Reviewed Mar 26, 2016
See my complete review blog post here . . .
Dir: David Gordon Greene
Reviewed Oct 19, 2018
A very serious disappointment with adolescent-level writing, an unbelievable plot twist, and details that make no sense. Mike Meyers may be dead, again (JL Curtis chopped his head off in H20 … so…I just don’t get it!), but the worst news about this flick is there will most likely be a sequel.
Older & Archived Reviews
The Case for Christ (2019)
Dir: Jon Gunn
Reviewed Dec 12, 2018
Unthinking credulity has a name, and it is “The Case for Christ”. Next time I want to waste time, I’d rather see “Plan 9 From Outer Space” or “This Darkness”.
If you already believe if the plethora of ideas which come with a blind obedience to this ancient superstition, more power to you — this will only serve to reinforce your ideas.
If you have a baloney detection kit filtering garbage, you will loose weight via regurgitation.
OM SHANTI OM (2007)
Dir: Farrah Kahn
Not for everyone, but an incredible movie for the true Bollywood buff
Review written January 4, 2013
Replete with inside jokes, self-loathing Bollywood mocking of all-too-common motifs and walk-on appearances by nearly 2 dozen Indian cinema stars, well, that should be enough. Not to mention Deepika Padukone, quite possibly the most exquisitely lovely woman on the planet (even my wife calls her “impossibly beautiful”). All this, and a great, involved plot, (mostly) razor-sharp directing from Farrah Khan (no relation to Shah Rukh Khan) and editing, this nearly 3-hour feast takes you through 2 lives lived for one idea. Incredible, sweeping, and ultimately, creepy, as in sending shivers down the spine in a plot twist that will have you going back for more.
Yes, just a touch campy; yes, the big Bollywood production numbers are both slightly numerous and long, but are interwoven with the story, if only marginally.
A friend of mine who wanted to know more about Indian cinema borrowed “3 Idiots” first, and will now check out this long, dramatic jewel. Then, who knows … “Sholay” and “Jodhaa Akbar”. Eventually, “Mother India”?
SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)
Dir: David Ayer
See my complete review blog post here . . .
Vampire Movie Reviews
Yes, I have an affinity for vampire movies. Here are just some reviews. Each will open with a new tab.
Addiction, The (1995)
Angel of the Night (Nattens Engel) (1998)
Ankle Biters (2002)
Razor Blade Smile (1998)