Monday, December 31, 2018

Robbie Awards 3

Technically, these are the Third Annual Robbie Awards for books I have read and reviewed since this time last year. Thanks to last year's seven-year retrospective ("Retro Robbie Awards"), this is unofficially the 10th year for which these awards have been presented. It's funny how fast this kind of anniversary sneaks up. Another challenge this year is the fact that, due to really limited online time, I'm way behind on writing my reviews; so, I'm going to have to wing it a bit.

So, to start, here are the books that (according to my records) I have read since the start of 2018:
  1. Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke
  2. Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
  3. The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol
  4. Invasion by Luke Rhinehart
  5. The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay
  6. Canoes in Winter: Beneath the Surface by Bob Guelker
  7. The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
  8. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson
  9. The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
  10. Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton
  11. Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson
  12. The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck
  13. Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
  14. Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  15. Bad Unicorn by Platte F. Clark
  16. Fluff Dragon by Platte F. Clark
  17. Good Ogre by Platte F. Clark
  18. The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky
  19. Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley
  20. The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
  21. Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson
  22. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
  23. The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson
  24. Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin
  25. Smoke by Dan Vyleta
  26. The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle
  27. The Gravedigger's Cottage by Chris Lynch
  28. Stronger by Jeff Bauman with Bret Witter
  29. Unsub by Meg Gardiner
  30. The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud
  31. The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
  32. The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud
  33. Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
  34. The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud
  35. Trollhunters by Guillermo del Toro & Daniel Kraus
  36. Time to Laugh: Funny Tales from Here and There ed. by Phyllis Fenner
  37. Scowler by Daniel Kraus
  38. The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
  39. Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones by Brandon Sanderson
  40. Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
  41. Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson
  42. Do the Movies Have a Future? by David Denby
  43. Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson
  44. Westmark by Lloyd Alexander
  45. The Kestrel by Lloyd Alexander
  46. Aliens in Disguise by Clete Barrett Smith
  47. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
  48. Magic Delivery by Clete Barrett Smith
  49. Cold Blooded by Lisa Jackson
  50. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
  51. Crime Scene by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman
  52. Temptation Bangs Forever: The Worst Church Signs You've Ever Seen by Robert Kroese and Joel Bezaire
  53. The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette
  54. Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
  55. Deep Freeze by John Sandford
  56. Legion by Brandon Sanderson
  57. The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham
  58. The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham
  59. The Power of Un by Nancy Etchemendy
  60. The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag
  61. It Takes One by Kate Kessler
  62. Two Can Play by Kate Kessler
  63. Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore
  64. Smek for President! by Adam Rex
  65. The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet
Well, I didn't make my Goodreads goal of 100 books this year. Apparently, suddenly having a lot of TV-on-DVD to binge on has been detrimental to my literary life. (It has also contributed to the curtailment of my creative writing.) Anyway, here are either the third or the tenth annual Robbie Awards!

Critics' Choice
I'm a critic, kind of. In my critical opinion, the best book on the above list, in terms of overall literary merit, is The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck.

People's Choice
I'm a person, too. My favorite book on the above list, for pure fun and popular appeal, is Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Kids' Choice
I'm a child inside. Of the books above aimed at younger readers, my favorite is Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling. Honorable mentions: Bad Unicorn, The Power of Un, Rain Reign and Magic Delivery.

Best Comeback
Of the golden oldies I discovered this year, I consider the goldenest (apart from The Moon Is Down) to be Westmark by Lloyd Alexander.

Best Newcomer
I didn't do any pre-publication reviews this year, but of the relatively recent publications I read this year, my favorite is The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette.

Best Documentary
I think the best nonfiction book I read this year is Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson. Honorable mention: Killers of the Flower Moon.

Best Audiobook
Of the books I read with my ears this year, my favorite is Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay, read by Kate Reading. Honorable mention: The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham, read by Pete Bradbury.

Best Foreign Adaptation
Strictly speaking, I didn't read anything translated from a foreign language. However, at least one book that I read seems to be a repackaging, probably with revisions to make it more digestible to an American audience, of multiple shorter books originally published in the U.K. So, I'll give this award to All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot.

Best Short Subject
I could give this, by default, to Temptation Bangs Forever, though I'm almost ashamed even to include it on this list. I could also give it to a book made up of short stories, but it doesn't quite feel right to slice it that way. So, alas, no award.

Best Art
In a new category recognizing illustration, graphic novel art and beautiful book covers, I'd like to recognize Smek for President! by Adam Rex for its intermittent but entertaining use of comic book-style panels within a novel that otherwise leaves the imagery up to the reader.

Best Adapted Material
Here's another new category, though I'm going to start by stretching the point a bit and award it to a book that was adapted into another medium rather than the other way around. The winner: Trollhunters by Guillermo del Toro & Daniel Kraus. I especially like the fact that although the original book and the subsequent TV series are so very different, neither suffers in the comparison; they are both, in my opinion, winners.

The Cabinet of Earths

The Cabinet of Earths
by Anne Nesbet
Recommended Ages: 12+

I didn't realize, when I read it, that A Box of Gargoyles was the sequel to this book. So, I read them out of order, but I don't think it really mattered. In this book, an American girl named Maya moves to Paris for a year with her parents and her adorable little brother James, meets her best friend (a Bulgarian boy named Valko), and finds herself in the middle of a magical plot that has involved several generations of her family. Among the relatives she is surprised to meet in Paris are a distant cousin who is partly invisible and once survived having a church fall on her, a beautiful uncle-cousin named Henri who has violet eyes and peddles a mysterious, addictive substance called anbar, and an eccentric, elderly uncle-cousin named Henri-Pierre who has a cabinet full of bottled earths that calls out to Maya (the cabinet I mean), urging her to become its next keeper.

Something sinister is afoot in Maya's Paris. It has something to do with a group of beautiful kids at her school, led by the Dauphin (or, as Maya calls him, the Dolphin), whose parents look way younger than they are. It has something to do with a witch who, during World War II, gave up on life after one of her sons betrayed the other to the Nazis. It has something to do with a fountain commemorating a series of vanished children who, it turns out, didn't really vanish - not entirely, anyhow. Someone is sucking the charm and liveliness out of Paris' children, and someone is creating a race of immortals, and meantime, Maya is worried that her mother's cancer may have come back. It's a lot for a teenage girl to handle, but when pushed in just the right way, Maya exhibits a steely strength that surprises her as much as the reader.

There is a lot to love about this book. Maya, her parents, James, Valko, and other characters are crisply drawn and subtly developed. Maya's spirit goes right to your heart. The atmosphere teems with magic, mystery, a sense of danger, and a presentiment of horror that mesh well with the scenery of Paris. Pieces of art and architecture play a role in creating a fascinating scenic world. And almost invisibly, like Cousin Louise, author Nesbet establishes a compelling and original style that conveys striking impressions and complex emotions in a truly original, yet seemingly effortless way.

Also by this California-based author and educator are the novels The Wrinkled Crown, Cloud and Wallfish, and The Orphan Band of Springdale, all of which look interesting to me. This was her first novel.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Smek for President!

Smek for President!
by Adam Rex
Recommended Ages: 11+

In this sequel to The True Meaning of Smekday (which also spawned an animated film titled Home), Gratuity "Tip" Tucci and her extraterrestrial friend J.Lo run away from home by flying the family car to New Boovworld, the moon of Saturn formerly known as Titan. There, while exploring J.Lo's quirky alien culture, they become gamepieces in a political campaign between the Highboov (Smek) and a challenger, whose name I've already forgotten. Also joining the campaign, at different times, are a talking parrot and a human who claims to have saved both races (human and Boov) from a common, alien enemy, though it was actually J.Lo and Tip who did that.

Except for the parrot, none of the candidates for office particularly care to have the truth come out, so the two become fugitives. It doesn't help that J.Lo is widely blamed for sending the signal that led the previous book's bad guys to Earth. People on New Boovworld call him the Squealer, and it isn't safe for him to show his face. Nevertheless, J.Lo hungers for reconciliation with his people, and Tip has his back. Surviving the manhunt, or rather Boovhunt, that Smek and Dan Landry have put on him will mean getting involved in the presidential race, even though J.Lo wants to be Highboov about as much as he wants to go to jail. So, their adventure evolves into a madcap parody of a U.S. presidential election, combined with three-dimensional chases in low gravity, shootouts with disintegration rays, tours of the yucky underbelly of a city built on its own garbage, and occasional passages in which quirky, graphic-novel-style panels take up the burden of storytelling.

I really enjoyed this novel. I lost count of the number of times it made me laugh until my sides ached. I especially loved reading about the issues between Tip and her mother. In addition to politics, the story also pokes rather pointed fun at society's thoughtless treatment of the environment, takes a goofy side-trip into time travel, and displays its author's endless and fearless inventiveness in every detail of the Boov cityscape. After reading three books by him, I'm now pretty convinced that Adam Rex is a talent to watch. Besides this series, several picture books for little 'uns, and Fat Vampire, he is also the author of the trilogy Cold Cereal, Unlucky Charms and Champions of Breakfast.

Practical Demonkeeping

Practical Demonkeeping
by Christopher Moore
Recommended Ages: 15+

I got a kick out of this author's book The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, not realizing at the time that it was the second book in a trilogy that started with this book and continues with The Stupidest Angel. Thanks to my mom's husband, who used my recent wish-list of "further books in series I've started to read" to shop for Christmas presents for me, I finally got the chance to go back to where it all started in the 1992 debut novel of the author of Bloodsucking Fiends, A Dirty Job and Island of the Sequined Love Nun, among other droll fantasies.

Where it all started is Pine Cove, Calif., whose claim to fame is being the city with the most divorced women per capita. One local female whose divorce is not yet final is a good-looking waitress named Jenny, who recently got the help she needed from a local coven of witches before kicking out her loser husband, when who should come into her life but a good-looking young insurance salesman who is actually a 90-year-old demonkeeper.

Travis stopped aging when, as a badly abused seminary student, he summoned Catch. Now he is condemned to travel the country with a scaly creature that only he can see except when it is about to eat someone - and that then grows all too horribly visible. Travis has been trying to find a way to get rid of Catch since World War I was on, but only now, in Pine Cove, does he seem to have found what he needs. Catch, meanwhile, thinks he has found his ticket to be free of Travis, whose insistence on not eating anyone who will be missed is as irritating to the demon as the demon's appetites are to his keeper. Unknown to both of them, a third player in the scenario - Gian Hen Gian, the King of the Djinn - has recruited a Zen alcoholic to help him send Catch back to hell.

Completing the ensemble are a vice detective desperate to catch one of the west coast's slimiest dealers, an elderly couple whose love story is intertwined with Travis' quest, and a woman whose determination to never let a man hurt her again may unleash an evil held in check since the time of King Solomon. Stir together and cook at the temperature of a California beach town, and it proves to be a recipe for hilarious, sexy, horrifying adventure, full of criss-crossing lines of character motivation and plot.

I know it's a weird thing to say about an author by whom I have already read several books, but I think this is a first novel that shows a lot of promise. Moore has followed up on it unevenly, in my opinion, but I have taken enough entertainment from these books - particularly of the laughs and chills persuasion - to be interested in reading more. Among his other titles are Secondhand Souls, You Suck, Fluke, Sacre Bleu and, most recently, Noir.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

DVD Reviews: More TV Seasons

+++ REVIEWS IN PROGRESS +++
































































DVD Reviews: More Cheapo Bin Choices

+++ REVIEWS IN PROGRESS +++







































Two More Movie Reviews

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++



























Two Can Play

Two Can Play
by Kate Kessler
Recommended Ages: 14+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

It Takes One

It Takes One
by Kate Kessler
Recommended Ages: 14+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

The Witch Boy

The Witch Boy
by Molly Knox Ostertag
Recommended Ages: 12+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

The Power of Un

The Power of Un
by Nancy Etchemendy
Recommended Ages: 10+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

The King's Blood

The King's Blood
by Daniel Abraham
Recommended Ages: 14+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Book Wish List (Abridged)

Someone recently asked me for a Christmas gift wish list. In response, I buried them under the following list of books - which is only an abridged list of titles I would be interested in reading. I limited myself to one book by each of the following authors or combinations of authors - mainly installments that I missed in series in which I have already read at least one book. Given more time, I could come up with a much bigger list. But the real question is whether I would ever have time to read them all!
  • William Alexander, "Ghoulish Song"
  • John David Anderson, "Insert Coin to Continue"
  • Jonathan Auxier, "Sweep"
  • Jennifer Lynn Barnes, "The Naturals"
  • Dale E. Basye, "Fibble: The Fourth Circle of Heck"
  • Ted Bell, "The Time Pirate"
  • John Bellairs, "The Curse of the Blue Figurine"
  • Jon Berkeley, "The Lightning Key"
  • Jeanne Birdsall, "The Penderwicks at Last"
  • Holly Black & Cassandra Clare, "The Bronze Key"
  • Sage Blackwood, "Jinx's Magic"
  • P.W. Catanese, "The End of Time"
  • Cinda Williams Chima, "The Sorcerer Heir"
  • Chris Colfer, "An Author's Odyssey"
  • Eoin Colfer, "The Time Paradox"
  • Chris Columbus & Ned Vizzini, "Battle of the Beasts"
  • Marianne Curley, "The Key"
  • Gitty Daneshvari, "Get Smart-ish"
  • James Dashner, "The Hunt for Dark Infinity"
  • Gene Doucette, "The Frequency of Aliens"
  • Diane Duane, "The Games Wizards Play"
  • David Eddings, "Guardians of the West"
  • Selden Edwards, "The Lost Prince"
  • Jasper Fforde, "The Song of the Quarkbeast"
  • Charlie Fletcher, "The Oversight"
  • Victoria Forester, "The Boy Who Knew Everything"
  • Neil Gaiman & Michael Reaves & Mallory Reaves, "Eternity's Wheel"
  • Robert Galbraith, "Lethal White"
  • Meg Gardiner, "Into the Black Nowhere"
  • Adam Gidwitz, "In a Glass Grimmly"
  • Adam Gopnik, "The Steps Across the Water"
  • Chris Grabenstein, "Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics"
  • Holly Grant, "The Dastardly Deed"
  • Clay Griffith & Susan Griffith, "The Rift Walker"
  • Lev Grossman, "The Magician's Land"
  • Michael Gruber, "The Book of Air and Shadows"
  • Shannon Hale, "Forest Born"
  • Michelle Harrison, "13 Secrets"
  • Joseph Helgerson, "Crows & Cards"
  • Michael Hiebert, "A Thorn Among the Lilies"
  • Tami Hoag, "Down the Darkest Road"
  • Charlie N. Holmberg, "The Glass Magician"
  • Tom Holt, "The Portable Door"
  • Anthony Horowitz, "Crocodile Tears"
  • Polly Horvath, "One Year in Coal Harbor"
  • Tonya Hurley, "Homecoming"
  • Catherine Jinks, "How to Catch a Bogle," also titled "A Very Unusual Pursuit"
  • Jane Johnson, "Dragon's Fire"
  • Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman, "A Measure of Darkness"
  • P.B. Kerr, "One Small Step"
  • Kaza Kingsley, "The Search for Truth"
  • S.J. Kincaid, "The Empress"
  • Wesley King, "Enemy of the Realm"
  • Matthew J. Kirby, "Icefall"
  • J.A. Konrath, "Whiskey Sour"
  • Dean Koontz, "Saint Odd"
  • Daniel Kraus, "At the Edge of Empire" (Book 1 of "The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch")
  • Adrienne Kress, "Timothy and the Dragon's Gate"
  • Caleb Krisp, "Somebody Stop Ivy Pocket"
  • Rob Kroese, "Mercury Rises"
  • R.L. LaFevers, "Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus"
  • A.J. Lake, "The Circle of Stone"
  • Katherine Langrish, "Troll Blood"
  • M.A. Larson, "The Warrior Princess of Pennyroyal Academy"
  • Ingrid Law, "Switch"
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Dispossessed"
  • Jason Lethcoe, "Wishful Thinking"
  • Josh Lieb, "Ratscalibur"
  • Robert Liparulo, "Watcher in the Woods"
  • Sam Llewellyn, "Desperado Darlings"
  • David Lubar, "My Rotten Life"
  • Jonathan Maberry, "Dust & Decay"
  • Marianne Malone, "Stealing Magic"
  • Ari Marmell, "Hallow Point"
  • Amanda Marrone, "The Shape Shifter's Curse"
  • Katherine Marsh, "The Twilight Prisoner"
  • Kelly McCullough, "Magic, Madness and Mischief"
  • Adrian McKinty, "The Lighthouse Keepers"
  • Scott Mebus, "The Sorcerer's Secret"
  • Colin Meloy, "Under Wildwood"
  • Maile Meloy, "The Apprentices"
  • Christopher Moore, "Practical Demonkeeping"
  • Brandon Mull, "Arcade Catastrophe"
  • Matt Myklusch, "The End of Infinity"
  • Henry H. Neff, "The Fiend and the Forge"
  • Anne Nesbet, "The Cabinet of Earths"
  • James Nicol, "A Witch Alone"
  • Garth Nix & Sean Williams, "The Missing" (also titled "Missing, Presumed Evil")
  • Naomi Novik, "Temeraire" (also titled "His Majesty's Dragon")
  • Kenneth Oppel, "Darkwing"
  • Gigi Pandian, "The Accidental Alchemist"
  • Edith Pattou, "West"
  • Dale Peck, "The Lost Cities"
  • Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter, "The Long War"
  • T.R. Ragan, "Abducted"
  • Michael Reisman, "The Octopus Effect"
  • Mike Resnick, "The Buntline Special"
  • Adam Rex, "Smek for President"
  • Kat Richardson, "Possession"
  • Ransom Riggs, "Library of Souls"
  • James Riley, "The Stolen Chapters"
  • Rick Riordan, "The Son of Neptune"
  • Laura Ruby, "The Chaos King"
  • E. Rose Sabin, "When the Beast Ravens"
  • Angie Sage, "Darke"
  • Brandon Sanderson, "The Dark Talent"
  • John Sandford, "Rules of Prey"
  • Kevin Sands, "Mark of the Plague"
  • J. Scott Savage, "Fires of Invention"
  • Liesel Schwarz, "A Clockwork Heart"
  • Michael Scott, "The Magician"
  • Darren Shan, "Allies of the Night"
  • Delia Sherman, "The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen"
  • Mike Shevdon, "Strangeness and Charm"
  • Polly Shulman, "The Poe Estate"
  • Neal Shüsterman, "Ship out of Luck"
  • Matthew Skelton, "The Story of Cirrus Flux"
  • Obert Skye, "Ambush"
  • Katie Slivensky, "The Seismic Seven"
  • Roland Smith, "Chupacabra"
  • Alan Snow, "Worse Things Happen at Sea!"
  • Justin Somper, "Tide of Terror"
  • John Stephens, "The Fire Chronicle"
  • Caroline Stevermer, "Magic Below Stairs"
  • Caroline Stevermer & Patricia Wrede, "Sorcery and Cecelia"
  • Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell, "The Curse of the Gloamglozer"
  • Trenton Lee Stewart, "The Prisoner's Dilemma"
  • Jeff Strand, "Grave Robbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary)"
  • Shanna Swendson, "Damsel Under Stress"
  • G.P. Taylor, "The Ghost Diamonds"
  • Kim Thompson, "Eldritch Manor"
  • Guillermo del Toro & Daniel Kraus, "The Shape of Water"
  • Megan Whalen Turner, "Thick as Thieves"
  • Anne Ursu, "The Real Boy"
  • John Vornholt, "The Troll Queen"
  • Scott Westerfeld, "Goliath"
  • Ysabeau Wilce, "Flora's Fury"
  • Maiya Williams, "The Fizzy Whiz Kid"
  • F. Paul Wilson, "Gateways"
  • N.D. Wilson, "The Last of the Lost Boys"
  • P.G. Wodehouse, "The Inimitable Jeeves"
  • Patricia Wrede, "Mairelon the Magician"
  • Rick Yancey, "The Isle of Blood"
  • Jane Yolen & Adam Semple, "Pay the Piper"

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Dragon's Path

The Dragon's Path
by Daniel Abraham
Recommended Ages: 14+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

Sorry about all this pending going on. I have been getting very little recreational screen time lately. If I didn't park these reminders here, I would never be able to catch up!

This is Book 1 of a series titled "The Dagger and the Coin." My review is based on an audiobook read by Pete Bradbury.

Friday, October 19, 2018

DVD Reviews: Cheapo Bin & Double Features

Goosebumps - I picked up a cheapo-bin DVD of this movie at Walmart sometime before I saw the sequel in the theater, and I have watched it several times. It's a hilarious, teen-romancey, spooky movie that approaches the task of adapting R.L. Stine's eponymous series of kiddie horror stories by proposing that the author's monstrous creations can escape from his original bound, typewritten manuscripts and come to life in the real world. In order to trap them, he has to write stories about them using a particular typewriter, ending with the hero(es) putting a stop to their ghoulish rampage. But now, thanks to a nosy neighbor boy who just moved in next door in the sleepy town of Madison, Delaware, the locks have been busted off the manuscripts and the town is being taken over by the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, Slappy the ventriloquist's puppet (DON'T call him a dummy), a wolf man, a giant preying mantis, space aliens with freeze-ray guns, an undead mummy, a very naughty invisible boy, a gang of ceramic garden gnomes come to life, and many more like them.

Playing Stine with what sounds like an unfortunate attempt to fake a British accent is Jack Black, whose film career is pretty much a series of roles that make one squirm and laugh about equally. His cute teenage daughter, who secretly has a deep connection to the author's vibrant fantasy life, is played by the strikinig looking Odeya Rush, who starred in another adaptation of a significant kids' book, Lois Lowry's The Giver. The boy next door, whom I at first mistook for Logan Lerman (late of Fury and the Percy Jackson films), is actually Dylan Minnette, lately more well-known for his lead role in the series 13 Reasons Why. Like Lerman, he has a combination of all-American-boy appeal and the ability to sell the line "That's completely mental" with a look. However, his best asset in this film, in my opinion, is his odd-couple chemistry with Ryan Lee (previously the pyromaniac kid in Super 8), who plays an endearingly dorky kid named Champ. At least 72 percent of this movie's success derives from their from-total-strangers-to-best-buds-in-less-than-a-week patter and their scared-but-excited reactions to a hundred crazy situations that were mostly added in post production - I mean, this is actually billed as a "Sony Pictures Animation" film.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) The opening credits. Have I ever said this before? In this case, it's because the credits rolled over footage of a car driving through the countryside that strangely made me think of the ghoulishly funny classic film Beetlejuice - and then I noticed that it was set to music by Danny Elfman, who also wrote music for that movie, which also started with footage of a car driving through the countryside. I doubt the visual and musical similarities were unintended. (2) The cameo appearance of the real R.L. Stine, who passes Jack Black in the high school hallway near the end of the movie, playing the new theater director. Basically, you could say that he swapped roles with the actor playing him; Black sells this idea with the Leslie Nielsen-esque thoughtful look that crosses his face at that moment. (3) Every scene featuring the hero boy's clueless, man-hungry Aunt Lorraine, played with comic genius by Jillian Bell. For these reasons and others that could mention, but won't in the interest of saving space, I would actually watch this movie again. And again. It's silly.

It relies too much, perhaps, on animated effects. But something about the fact that it is unapologetically an "animation" product makes me feel more kindly disposed toward it than, say, the latest DC "live action" film, in which there is so much CGI fantasy action that the actors must have spent most of the production standing in front of green screens. You can enjoy and respect a story in which animated fantasy characters share the screen with live actors, even while sniffing at CGI fakery designed around live-action characters. Maybe I'm not a good enough critic to explain it, but there it is. I would see this movie again and again, and still enjoy it, because I think it draws the line between animated fantasy and live-action reality where it belongs.

Man of Steel - Here, on the other hand, is one of those live-action films that suffers excruciatingly from CGI Out the Wazoo. Oh, its poor wazoo! There are long sequences in this movie that are so devoid of the stamp of reality that my eyes, optic nerves, and brain refuse to put together a coherent mental picture of what is going on. Many of the fight scenes are so over-the-top that they make me go "Tsk" and tap my foot impatiently until the next scene begins. Zack Snyder's style of direction makes me wonder about the guy. Given the opportunity to film a thrilling scene of flight or aerial battle with beautiful, crisp imagery that puts the viewer (as it were) inside the hero's tights, Snyder instead shoots it in a way that suggests a distant spectator struggling to focus a handheld camera on a subject that is moving faster than he can keep up. The whole "caught on video by somebody's smartphone" look seems just a bit out of pace with an effects sequence taking place on an alien planet or in an unpopulated region of Earth.

But blowing visual opportunities seems to be the theme that connects all the elements of Snyder's directorial style. Another example is the way he takes Henry Cavill - whose chiseled appearance is 83.7 percent of what made The Immortals watchable, a living opportunity to photograph a perfect physical specimen if there ever was one - and makes him look awkward, alien and at times even ugly. And this is the guy who is supposed to be Superman! I think there was exactly one sequence in the entire movie in which the camera did justice to Cavill's studliness. It was as if Snyder's lens was afraid to linger. Tsk!

The movie makes good use of some familiar cast members, such as Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Clark Kent's human parents, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El. It also benefits from appearances by Herry Lennix (from the "Matrix" trilogy), Richard Schiff (late of "The West Wing" and "The Good Doctor") and Christopher Meloni (from "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit"). It also makes some lousy use of some, such as super-heavy Michael Shannon, who did not come across as a good actor (though I have previously listed one of his scenes as one of the "Three Scenes that Made 12 Strong for Me"), or Laurence Fishburne, who was wasted on the role of Perry White. The movie might bave been improved if they had swapped roles. It also, if I haven't already made it clear that I feel this way, wasted Henry Cavill on a version of "Superman" who, except right at the climax of the movie, mostly didn't come across as very super at all. Maybe I'm saying this under the influence of a video reviewer who pointed out that this movie's Clark constantly seems to be crying on some woman's shoulder, either Martha Kent's or Lois Lane's. But at some point, I realized that the only spine Clark showed was when, as a boy, he saved the other kids on the school bus, and when, as a man, he volunteered to surrender to General Zod for the good of the human race. Well, there is that bit where he beat up the machine that was turning Earth into Krypton. That was pretty good, too. OK, and that bit on the burning oil platform. All right, so pretty much the whole movie, when he wasn't crying or moping. However, his killing of General Zod at the end seemed more like a display of his frailty than an act of heroism.

Three Scenes that Made It for Me: (1) The flashback to Kevin Costner's death in a tornado, which Clark interpreted later as a sacrifice to protect his secret identity. (2) The line "A good death is its own reward," which a female Kryptonian uses to terrorize Meloni's character, and which Meloni later throws back in her face at a crucial moment. (3) Lois: "Welcome to the Planet." Clark: "Glad to be here."

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: Here is a dark, magical, scary fantasy story aimed at audiences of ages teen and above, with the trademark weirdness of a Tim Burton movie. Based on the first book in a series by Ransom Riggs, which in turn was based on the author's collection of bizarre vintage photographs, the movie depicts a present-day American boy named Jake (Asa Butterfield, late of Hugo and Ender's Game) who begins to doubt his sanity when he witnesses his beloved grandfather's murder by a giant, eyeball-eating monster that nobody else can see. Then he guilts his self-absorbed father into taking him to the Welsh island where his grandpa stayed as a child, supposedly to help Jake say goodbye, but really to find out whether the spooky stories his grandpa used to tell him might have some grain of truth in them. Instead of an orphanage, however, he finds the ruins of a home that was hit by a German bomb during World War II. Nevertheless, he makes contact with some of the orphans, who are still the same age as when Jake's grandpa left them man years before. Are they ghosts? No. Are they immortal? Not exactly. They're a bunch of "peculiar" children - children with abilities that make them different, like the boy who has bees living in his stomach and the girl who is lighter than air - and they live in a time loop that repeats the same 24 hours over and over, right up to the moment the German shell hit the house. Protecting them is an eccentric woman who can turn into a bird, and who also has the power to control time.

Jake, however, isn't the only visitor to the island who has found his way to these special children. Also searching for them is a creepy man (Samuel L. Jackson) who travels with an invisible, eyeball-eating monster - the same one that got Grandpa. Mr. Barron, as this creep calls himself, is part of a group that means to destroy all the time loops protecting groups of peculiars, devour their eyeballs and absorb the powers of the "ymbrines" that protect them. If that happens, the kids from Miss Peregrine's loop will age rapidly to however many years old they would be in the present day - which would be a bummer for Jake's new friends, and especially the girl he kind of likes. To fight back, they must raise a sunken wreck off the ocean floor, sail it to Blackpool, and battle it out with the bad guys and their pet monsters against the real-world backdrop of the resort town's famous pier and circus. Thanks to their peculiar powers, they'll have on their side the ability to throw fire, bring dead things to life, grow plants at a rapid rate, turn people to stone with a look, and more. But a lot of their chances will finally come down to whether Jake can believe that he belongs with these kids, and finds the courage to fight alongside them.

The sets and locations in this movie are superb. The characters, imagery, and atmosphere are all thrilling, disturbing, and whimsical in unexpected proportions. The folks who cast the movie found some really interesting looking kids to play the peculiar children. Though his acting is a little wooden, Butterfield (who is really British) comes across as convincingly American, while Eva Green (who is French) conveys an equally convincing impression of being a vivacious, if somewhat mannish, Englishwoman with the charisma to keep a large group of kids in order. Other assets include Jackson, who gets some of the funniest lines ("You get a breath mint!"), Terence Stamp as the grandpa, Rupert Everett as the bird watcher whose presence on the island irritates Jake's bird-crazy dad, Judi Dench as the ymbrine who attempts to warn Miss Peregrine of coming trouble, Allison Janney as Jake's shrink, the boy who befriends Sherlock in Mr. Holmes (which I so want to see), and the underappreciated Chris O'Dowd (late of Juliet, Naked), whose achievement in convincingly playing a Polish-Jewish-American shlub (Jake's dad) while actually being Irish is actually some top-shelf comic acting, camouflaged in downmarket uselessness. It isn't a movie that is particularly faithful to the source book, but I think it may be one of the book-to-film adaptations that actually improves on the original. I have enjoyed watching it multiple times, and I think I'll be enjoying it again in the future.

Three Scenes that Made It for Me: (1) Jake answers the phone inside the time loop and finds himself talking to a 19-year-old version of his grandpa, whose call is part of Miss Peregrine's daily routine. Jake first pretends to be a new kid at Miss Peregrine's, then blurts out something like, "I'm sorry if I ever disappointed you, and I just want you to know that you were the best grandpa in the world." Young Abe is gobsmacked. Meanwhile, for 30 seconds, Asa Butterfield shines as an actor. It's a hard scene to watch without getting your cheeks wet. (2) The whole circus/pier boss battle, which was invented for the movie and includes Ray Harryhausen-esque animated skeletons, giant invisible monsters, carnival rides, weaponized cotton candy, a real-life aerialist who was cast as a character and did her own stunts, and some plot-heavy business about going back and forth through a time portal that is scheduled to close forever at dusk, and the classic shape-changer shtick where, at a crucial moment, two different people try to prove which one of them is the real Jake. (3) The skin-crawling scene in which the re-animator boy uses the dead body of one of the children (who was killed by a monster the day before the time loop started) as a ventriloquist's puppet. I can't think of many other filmmakers who share Tim Burton's willingness to infuse young adult films with a similar blend of whimsy and ghoulishness. It may not be for everyone, but I like it.

R.I.P.D.This movie, like the Bruce Willis movie Red, was based on a graphic novel and was directed by Robert Schwentke in a manner that frequently apes the look of comic-book panels. Both movies are full of dark humor, violence and action that fiddles with the line between fantasy and reality - although Red doesn't carry the supernatural baggage implied by the phrase "Rest In Peace Department." For some reason, Red was much more successful than this movie. Go figure. I like them both. I understand that my appreciation of this movie puts me at a disadvantage, considering how widely it was panned. I thought it was a gas.

The story involves a present-day Boston cop named Nick (Ryan Reynolds), who gets murdered by his crooked partner (Kevin Bacon) and, upon arriving in the afterlife, is recruited into the R.I.P.D. The department's job is to round up "deados" who are trying to pass as the living, thereby preventing their "soul stank" from corroding the world. Nick wants to go back to his wife, but the Powers That Be have so arranged things that the living see him as a middle-aged Chinese man, and anything he says to explain himself comes out as gibberish. Meantime, he finds himself saddled (all but literally) with a 19th-century lawman named Roy (Jeff Bridges) as his partner and mentor, a situation both of them feel is a punishment, at first. Don't worry, they eventually bond during an outrageous, laws-of-nature-bending race against a conspiracy of deados, who plan to rain hell on earth.

It's a sometimes gross, sometimes campy, dangerous, dizzying ride, with plunges off the sides of tall buildings, vertical chases up them, speeding cars dodging debris from a street lined with collapsing parking structures, gunfights using ammo that erases people's souls from existence, visual gags involving the R.I.P.D. officers' appearance to living people, unsettled issues between Roy and the buddies' superior (played by Red's Mary-Louise Parker), and some lines of dialogue that made me laugh so hard that I cried. While I have them in mind, here are the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Roy confesses the dark secret of what the coyotes did with his skull. (2) Upon seeing Nick's ex-partner go to visit Nick's widow, Roy gloats about the "pants-down spanking in the supermarket" level of humiliation he must be feeling. (3) Roy (who appears to mortals as a gorgeous blonde) to a guy who approaches him with an offer of a modeling job: "I'm not a piece of meat put on this earth for your gratification, I'm a woman. Respect me or I will castrate you like a three-year-old steer."

If I had room for a fourth scene, it would be the one in which Roy and Nick quiz a deado about Indian food (because, apparently, dead people don't like cumin). You might get the idea that the most entertaining character in this movie is Roycephus Pulsipher. You would be right. But he's in almost every scene, so it's a pretty entertaining movie, in my opinion. You may call me crazy now, but I was also (if memory serves) one of the few people who liked The Fifth Element when it first came out, and its stock has gone way up in the years since then. I think the same might happen with R.I.P.D. Remember I said so when it does.

One of my cheapo-bin purchases was a $5 double-feature set of Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, neither of which I had previously seen. (I have since seen most of a sequel to the former, London Has Fallen, on my parents' cable.) Experiencing them both for the first time, back to back, was an interesting exercise in comparing two movies that go in quite different directions from the same basic premise, kind of like when my college buddies and I rented Wyatt Earp and Tombstone one weekend for a VHS movie marathon. What they have in common is, basically, that bad guys take over the White House with an agenda that, among other things, includes forcing the President to give them the power to launch the nation's nukes. The executive mansion gets shot all to hell. Lots of people get killed (more, however, in one movie than the other). A nefarious agenda nearly brings down the federal government. And the one super-capable dude who can stop it isn't even, officially, part of the president's protection detail. Now that I see it put that way, there really are a lot of things these flicks have in common. Both movies were very entertaining, and each had advantages over the other. But rather than keep you in suspense, I'll say right now that I had more fun watching White House Down. Before I get to the reason why - I guess you'll have to endure some suspense after all - let's say a bit about each movie, so you can remember which is which.

Olympus Has Fallen is the one in which lanky, square-jawed Aaron Eckhart, as the President of the U.S., gets taken hostage in his own subterranean bunker by a North Korean terrorist who somehow faked his way into the White House as part of the South Korean prime minister's security detail. His ex-bodyguard, played by Gerard Butler as a stone killer with a heart of gold - he particularly likes driving a knife into a bad guy's brain - runs flat-out from the Treasury Building to find the White House all but completely taken by hostile forces, but he gets in by a follicle and wages a one-man guerilla campaign against the boss villain's goons. Things start to look up when he safely extracts the president's young son from the mansion, but with nuclear launch only seconds away, he has to fight a martial-arts championship match over the president's bleeding but under-utilized torso. The film also stars Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House, who does an admirable job of running the government while the president is incapacitated; Dylan McDermott as a highly placed traitor within the Secret Service; Angela Bassett as the head of the Secret Service; Robert Forster as a military mucky-muck; Pitch Black co-stars Radha Mitchell and Cole Hauser as (respectively) Butler's wife and the ill-fated presidential bodyguard who (if memory serves) delivers the movie's title as his last words; Rick Yune (Die Another Day and The Fast and the Furious) as the boss bad guy; Ashley Judd, the first lady whose death in the opening scenes explains why Butler isn't in the White House when the bad guys throw down; and Oscar-winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter) as a scenery-chewing Secretary of Defense, whose survival is one of the nicer surprises in an otherwise bloodthirsty movie.

Three Scenes that Made It for Me: (1) Getting the kid out of danger. I don't care that it defused (diffused?) a lot of the suspense. I couldn't stand having him in there any longer. (2) Morgan Freeman tells off Robert Forster. I think if they costarred in a movie a year, on the condition that Morgan got to tell off Robert each time, audiences would pay money and applaud at that scene. It isn't just that Morgan Freeman is the coolest man on earth, but that Robert Forster has such a knack for playing SOBs that the combination just gels. (3) Butler: "Sorry about the house, sir." Eckhart: "It's OK. I believe it's insured."

White House Down is the one in which Obama-esque President Jamie Foxx is saved from Eckhart's trapped-in-the-presidential-bunker ordeal by a hunky civilian (actually, the House Speaker's bodyguard) played by Channing Tatum, who just happened to be taking the White House tour with his teenage daughter, after unsuccessfully interviewing for a job as a presidential bodyguard, when all hell broke loose. All hell, in this case, was unleashed with (spoiler alert!) the connivance of the head of the presidential detail, played with superb villainy by James Woods. Another member of the conspiracy is revealed much later, but I won't spoil that one for you. A cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Foxx and Tatum using dumbwaiters, tunnels, elevator shafts, and other little-traveled pathways to elude capture by Woods' goons. Most of the goons seem to think their objective is to steal a truckload of money, but Woods harbors a darker, deadlier plan that involves, you guessed it, the president's nuclear launch codes. Meantime Tatum's daughter teams up with a comically nerdy tour guide (Nicolas Wright of Independence Day: Resurgence) to do a little villain-foiling of their own. Also appearing in this film are familiar character actors Richard Jenkins as the Speaker and Michael Murphy as the Vice President; Maggie Gyllenhaal as the Secret Service babe who commands her agency's response to the situation from outside the White House; Jason Clarke, who played Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick, as the head bad guy under Woods; Lance Reddick (Fringe, the John Wick movies) as a high-ranking military guy; Matt Craven (Indian Summer, Resurrection) and Jake Weber (Medium) as a couple of Secret Service guys; Peter Jacobson (House) as the Veep's weaselly aide; Kevin Rankin (Breaking Bad, Justified) as the loud-mouth gunman tasked with watching the tourists; Patrick Sabongui (Barry Allen's police captain on The Flash) as the first heavy to die, and Falk Hentschel (Hawkman on The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow) as the one Woods kills after he raises a qualm of conscience; and Jimmi Simpson (Westworld) as the flamboyant computer hacker whose self-inflicted, accidental demise plays as black comedy.

Three Scenes that Made It For Me: (1) Tatum's daughter, meeting the president during the tour, tells him that her dad is going to be on his Secret Service detail, because Tatum wasn't quite honest with her about how his interview went. Foxx, who is quick to take a man's measure, leans close to Tatum while they shake hands and says, "You shouldn't lie to your kid." (2) The good guys try to get Woods' wife to talk him out of doing all kinds of evil stuff. Acting all confused and hurt, she gets on the phone, goes all cold and tells him, basically, "Screw them. Screw them all!" (3) The speed with which Tatum's character goes from zero to hero: After winning a fight with a bad guy while searching for his daughter, he is monitoring the bad guys' walkie-talkie chatter and recognizes a place they're mentioning as the door he is walking by. Tempted to keep walking, he hesitates a moment, says something like "I am so stupid for doing this!" and proceeds to rescue the president before Woods can trap him in the bunker.

So, here are some of the reasons I think White House Down is more fun to watch than Olympus Has Fallen. First, Tatum comes across as a bit more of an "everyman." His character isn't the stone killer Butler's is; he's just an underachieving ex-soldier who isn't quite meeting the needs of his ex-wife and their teen daughter - but when they are separated in a deadly crisis, he goes into Wreck-It Ralph mode and would tear the White House to pieces with his bare hands to get her back safely. People who encounter him early in the movie don't look at him with much respect; but the longer he keeps himself and Foxx alive, the more respect you see in their eyes and hear in their voices. In short, it's fun to see him grow into a hero, whereas Butler's problem, if he has one, is an excess of heroism that, under such circumstances as the movie depicts, comes in very handy - but usually doesn't. He doesn't have trouble relating with people because, like Tatum, he still needs to grow up a bit; his reason is that he is already so far above everyone else.

For another thing, or maybe a different side of the same thing, Tatum's character has a more marked sense of humor, which both keeps him relatable and provides a steady supply of comic relief. This needs to be tapped now and then to keep the tension from exhausting the audience. Also, the fact that he looks fetching in a filthy tank top is a nice counterbalance to all the ugly stuff depicted in the movie. Butler's flak vest is perhaps a more sensible look under the circumstances, but it's also that much more serious of a movie. It's all drama, which only occasionally opens a relief valve - which perhaps explains why I chose the Three Things that I did. Tatum's flick, on the other hand, is pure escape. And as far as I'm concerned, that's the biggest reason to go and see a movie about bad guys blowing up the White House.

Third, I think Woods and his goons, assembled by using America's Most Wanted as a shopping list, are a more entertaining bunch of villains than Yune's. Americans can watch Butler carve them up without remorse because they're, like, a bunch of foreigners whose actions are an act of war. Woods, Clarke, Hentschel, Rankin and Simpson - well, maybe not Simpson - are Americans whose motives the audience can understand, if not sympathize with. Even while we enjoy seeing them thwarted, their feelings register on more of a human level; we almost pity them as Tatum comes after them one by one; and that adds a layer of complexity to what might otherwise be pure popcorn movie.

On the other hand, the damage done to the U.S. government isn't taken as seriously in the Tatum flick as in the Butler one. Olympus Has Fallen is earnestly presented like a worst-case scenario, while White House Down comes across more like a Die Hard on Pennsylvania Avenue, with a touch of Scooby-Doo sleuthery at the end. Between the two movies, you see four nuclear helicopters getting blown up by surface-to-air missiles, a presidential limo trashed in a madcap chase across the White House Lawn, the Capitol rotunda blown up, the White House set on fire, the Vice President's airplane shot down minutes after the schmuck invokes the Presidential Succession Act, the demise of platoons of soldiers and security personnel, and the wanton destruction of a priceless German clock among other historical artifacts. But to its credit, the ending of Olympus Has Fallen responds to all this the way a real government would, looking back with somber respect for fallen heroes and moving forward with serious resolve. White House Down, in contrast, concludes with an energy-sapping wink of romantic comedy and the last-moment revelation (for little dramatic effect) of one more villain in the dastardly conspiracy. Judged by their endings and their overall realism, OHF is better than WHD; but for pure, popular entertainment, it's White House Down for the win.

The original Red is another violent, action-packed, funny Robert Schwentke film derived from, and retaining some of the stylings of, a graphic novel. Its sequel, which I found with it in one of those cheapo double-feature DVD sets, moves on with a different director and a less conspicuous comic-bookiness. I like them both, in spite of what everyone else says, although I admit that they're a little over-the-top and silly - knowingly, I think. They feature Bruce Willis as a retired CIA hit-man who is finding life after wet work to be rather dry. About the only fun in his life on the "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" list is pretending to have trouble getting his pension check so he can chat up the cute girl at the call center in Kansas City (played by Mary-Louise Parker). Then someone puts out a kill order on both of them, and they go on the run - as awkward a way to start a romance as there ever was. Joining them one by one in their mission to learn who wants them dead and why are fellow ex-spooks played by Morgan Freeman (first movie only), John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and a Russian-accented Brian Cox. Among the antagonists, sympathizers, psychos and "it's complicated" types that they meet, between the two movies, are characters played by Karl Urban, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfus, Julian McMahon, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Thewlis, Neal McDonough, and Byung-Hun Lee.

To be sure, Movie 2 seems longer than necessary by about a quarter. Just when you think it's almost over, a new act opens in an entirely different country and you realize that you just have to cross your legs and try to hold it in; or, now that you have it on DVD, pause it and make a potty stop. Also, Mary-Louise Parker isn't everybody's cup of tea. I, personally, enjoy her "This is so cool!" reaction to everything going on around her, after she gets over her initial skepticism (which is to say, her attempts to escape from Willis after he apparently kidnaps her, even though she admits this isn't her worst first date). She carries the point of view of the ordinary person caught up in extraordinary doings, and adds a certain comic spark of her own - particularly in Movie 2, when she seems more gung-ho about their life of adventure than Willis is. Malkovich's paranoid character is another layer of fun on top of that, almost worth watching both movies on his own account. The sociopathic romance between Mirren and Cox is just one phony Russian accent short of Boris and Natasha; shamelessly silly, disturbing, and yet somehow endearing. Each new principal character the series adds brings memorable chemistry to the ensemble. Seeing some enemies brought around to become allies, and others get theirs in spectacular style, just put the last perfection on it. You never know, until almost the very end, who the real threat is and how the good guys will escape. So, yeah, it all comes at the cost of a long time seated. But, provided you have plenty of recreational food and drink, and a willingness to hit "pause" for a toilet break, you can do it.

For this "Three Scenes That Made It For Me," I'm going to combine both movies: (1) Byung-Hun Lee, after being strip-searched for weapons and issued a kimono, kills a man with a piece of folded paper that his victim unwisely handed to him, and walks away without anyone noticing that he did it. Things that can only happen in Korea or Japan, eh? (2) Morgan Freeman has two death scenes, both of which involve fakery or deception, but in opposite ways - first, you believe him to have been killed, when he hasn't; then, you think someone else was killed, but it was him. Did this filmic chiasm happen by design, or is it just an artifact of "keep the audience guessing" ethic that drives this series? Dunno. (3) Bruce Willis' fight with Karl Urban in the latter's office at CIA Headquarters. They both get badly hurt, but the way they hurt each other is super-entertaining.

Maybe the fact that I can say this, and I'm probably not alone at that, is a sign that movies like this are subtly turning viewers into the kind of sociopaths they depict. To be sure, McDonough's character took casual murder to lengths that made me squirm practically every time he appeared on screen. Urban's first scene involved a killing carried out so cold-bloodedly that it still chills me to think about it. The profession that all of these people are in is, no bones about it, reprehensible and to sympathize with one group of them against another seems superfluous. But still the film allows you to reason, at some level, that these are retired people who served their country honorably and have been put out to pasture, where (with the exception of Mirren) they represent a danger to no one until someone threatens to harm them. And by the end of each movie, you realize that a lot depends on them stopping whoever started the fight. Nevertheless, there is a certain romance in the last century's darkest shadows, and these cheesy (yes, knowingly!) movies invite viewers to indulge in it. I'm up for the invitation.

Three Movie Reviews

The House with a Clock in its Walls - The first of two Halloween-themed Jack Black vehicles that came out practically on top of each other, this movie was based on a beloved book by John Bellairs. It is perhaps for the best that I hadn't re-read the book for several years before seeing this movie, so my impression of it as a fan of the book is that it was pretty faithful to the source material. More importantly, as an amateur judge of filmmaking, I thoroughly enjoyed this spooky, magical family movie.

It's all about a somewhat pathetic boy named Lewis Barnavelt (less pathetic in the film than in the book, as I recall), who loses both his parents and ends up being raised by his uncle Jonathan. Then he finds out that Jonathan and the neighbor lady, Mrs. Zimmerman, are a warlock and a witch, and that the house and its grounds are full of weird stuff, such as carnivorous topiary and friendly furniture. It also has a dreadful book that Lewis is warned never to touch (but of course, he disobeys), and an ominous ticking inside the walls that Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman worry about, when they aren't bickering like an old married couple. Unfortunately, having his best friend at school turn against him is the least of little Lewis's problems. Soon he is being drawn into a plot to end the world by an evil wizard from beyond the grave.

The cast is just right. Jack Black is much better in the role of a midwestern sorcerer, without the unconvincing fake British accent he affects in his Goosebumps role. Also, Uncle Jonathan is much more loving and lovable than his R.L. Stine persona, and his chemistry with Mrs. Z (Cate Blanchett) is terrific. As Lewis, Owen Vaccaro makes a promising lead-role debut; he previously played Will Ferrell's stepson in two Daddy's Home movies (I haven't seen either) and has played somebody's son in a couple other films. The vulnerability of these characters is a Bellairs trademark. Kyle MacLachlan takes a villainous turn as the wizard Izard; seeing the little people thwart his plan is truly a pleasure. Not to be glossed over is the production design of this film, which created a nostalgic look for its 1955 small-town-Michigan setting and the even more historic Izard mansion, not to mention Uncle Jonathan's old beater of a car.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Mrs. Z remarks, "He's so weird," when Lewis demonstrates his unique style of making magic. (2) Naturally, the jack o'lantern attack. (3) Lewis' dodge-ball revenge on the best friend who betrayed him.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween - Going into the second kids' movie that came out around Halloween and featured Jack Black, I was a little nervous about his performance. I liked the original "Goosebumps" movie, but only in spite of Black's performance as R.L. Stine, the author of the spooky kids' book series on which the movie was based. Black played Stine as a prickly intellectual with what sounded like an unconvincing fake British accent. It wasn't his best work, and I say that fully aware that I'm talking about Jack Black, whose performances regularly make me wince. This sequel, however, took the prudent step of relegating Black's character to an almost superfluous bit part. It also replaced the hero teens from the original movie with an entirely different group of kids who come across the nefarious Slappy (a living ventriloquist's puppet who absolutely hates being called a "dummy," also voiced by Jack Black) and unwittingly aid him in his comeback, via an unpublished R.L. Stine manuscript. You know, because the monsters created by Stine always stir up trouble when they escape from his books.

In this instance, Slappy hatches a plot to turn the town's Halloween decorations into real monsters and, basically, unleash Halloween-ageddon. The kids fight back, supported in part by that crazy neighbor who goes way over the top with holiday decorations. It's a funny, goofy, special-effects-driven thrill ride for kids that I thought hit all its marks and didn't fail to entertain, in spite of having a little-known leading cast. With its present-day setting, it contrasts nicely with the season's other Black/Halloween flick. However, because I left the writing of this review in "pending" mode for way too long, I'm afraid I can't remember it in enough detail to provide my usual "Three Scenes that Made It For Me." Sorry!

First Man - This movie about Neil Armstrong's journey from testing experimental aircraft to planting the first human bootprint on the moon was a visually stunning, emotionally overwhelming powerhouse of a historic biopic starring Ryan Gosling. It spotlights the strains on the legendary astronaut's marriage, his emotional unavailability, his devastating grief after the death of his daughter, his tough relationship with his two sons, and the losses of many of his colleagues in a variety of crashes and accidents leading up to the Apollo program. Normally, at this point in the review, I would recite the names of a bunch of people in the film's awesome cast, but if you're reading this, you're on the internet; so use it.

As I've mentioned before, I've been operating on a minimum of recreational online time for a while now, so unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to write this review until months after posting it with a "review in progress" blurb. Ordinarily, that would mean that I couldn't recall enough detail to provide my customary "Three Scenes that Made It For Me." In this case, however, the film made a very strong impression on me, so here goes: (1) Armstrong shuts himself in his study during the reception after his daughter's funeral and puts her charm bracelet, with beads spelling her name (Karen), in his desk drawer. This moment of repressed emotion pairs beautifully with a scene of healing toward the end of the movie, when the astronaut extends his space-suited hand over the rim of a lunar crater, opens it, and lets that charm bracelet fall into the darkness below. (2) Armstrong's wife (played by Claire Foy) blows up at him, in a display of emotion that pushes the needle into the red that stands out all the more after the stifling emotional repression previously depicted, and forces him to talk to his sons about the risk he is taking in his voyage to the moon - and what an awkward conversation that proves to be. (3) The stunning moonscapes depicted as the lunar lander descends, and after it lands.

As for the gripe some people have that the movie glosses over the planting of the U.S. flag, an omission that allegedly serves some anti-American interest or at least aims to appeal to people who don't love mom and apple pie, eh. I didn't even think about this until somebody quizzed me about it after I saw the movie. I thought I recalled seeing somebody digging a hole that I presumed was for the flagpole; though maybe he was taking a soil sample. I thought the movie's focus on Armstrong's personal experience was what made the moon scenes powerful. The film is unafraid to depict this American hero as a marginally functional person who must have been tough to live and work with. In fact, I think that insight into Armstrong's character does a lot to explain just how the U.S. achieved a moon landing when the science and technology that made it possible were so sketchy. Also, I am fascinated by the idea of solving a big problem by breaking it into smaller problems and solving each of them separately, which is depicted as a key to achieving the seemingly impossible feat. But it's the achievement of Mrs. Armstrong being able to reach out to and touch Mr.'s heart that is finally the central miracle of this story. What a cool surprise that is. And what a tremendous impetus this film is to follow the directing career of Damien Chazelle, whose only previous feature films were the Oscar-worthy La La Land, Whiplash and some obscure film about a jazz trumpeter. If this guy keeps going like this, he is going to be mentioned in a lot of awards buzz in movie seasons to come.

Legion

Legion
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 14+

Subtitled The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, this book (as I read it) is somewhat successful as a novel, although it was originally three novellas: Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, both previously published, and the brand-new Lies of the Beholder. Its main character is a unique genius who has learned to function, and indeed to excel, in spite of a devastating mental illness. Stephen Leeds has an extreme form of multiple personality disorder that would be a constant, debilitating torment, if not for the ability to converse with his alter egos that he learned from a similarly afflicted woman, the love of his life. Now he can say, "I'm perfectly sane. It's my hallucinations that are mad."

Using an indescribable combination of eidetic memory and mental division of labor, Leeds has the ability to become a world-class expert on anything in only minutes or hours. Each new specialty is embodied in a different personality that he can see, hear, and converse with. They are so real to him that he has to buy plane tickets for the ones he takes along on his globe-trotting, mystery-solving, troubleshooting career. Luckily, he makes enough money at it to keep them in a mansion with plenty of rooms for all of them. Nevertheless, his trouble distinguishing real people from imaginary ones makes it difficult for him to spend much time among the former, while his latest spate of cases have a weird way of putting the latter in danger.

His cases involve an artifact that could disprove at least one major religion, a piece of technology that could turn every person's body into a supercomputer, and the ultimate threat to his own piece of mind. Other than that, I don't want to say anything that might spoil your discovery of this book's psychologically gripping adventures. It's yet another example of Brandon Sanderson's peculiar way of building fascinating and totally original fantasy worlds that perhaps take some time to absorb, but that will stay under your skin forever afterward. Forward in brainy concepts and character drama but not at all behind in action, thrills and surprises, this book (typical of his work) is a completely satisfying piece of entertainment.

There are two types of Brandon Sanderson novels: Ones that I wholeheartedly recommend, and ones that I look forward to reading. For more examples of what Sanderson can do, see Elantris, The Rithmatist, Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians and its four sequels, the two Mistborn trilogies starting with The Final Empire and The Alloy of Law, and the Reckoners trilogy starting with Steelheart. Or, if you prefer, join me as I discover Warbreaker, Skyward, the Infinity Blade titles Awakening and Redemption, the Stormlight Archive trilogy starting with The Way of Kings, the Cosmere novels starting with Sixth of the Dusk, and (if I live long enough to get that far in the series) the concluding installments of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time cycle.

Deep Freeze

Deep Freeze
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the 10th Virgil Flowers novel, the Minnesota Burea of Criminal Apprehension's most easy-going investigator returns to Trippton, the riverside town where he previously arrested the entire school board for murder. This time, he is called out to catch the killer of a beautiful banker who was apparently killed by a fellow member of her high school class reunion committee.

While Virgil gets closer to figuring out who done it, several red herrings are dragged across the trail - including a rough-trade boy toy, a married ex-boyfriend with an explosive temper matched only by that of his wife, a transgender ex-husband whose business is on the rocks, and a couple whose hopes for a business loan were about to be shot down by the victim.

Even though the reader knows who killed the homecoming queen right from the start, it is thrilling to watch Virgil and the characters around him navigate the perils of Trippton - including a killer who is prepared to kill again if it serves his interests. Meantime, the main character continues to reshape the idea of a tough-guy detective, as he continues to exhibit a reluctance to carry a gun, gets beaten senseless by a group of women, and has his beloved pickup shot out from under him.

It's sexy, funny, murderous fun with a slice of life in a small Minnesota town that cuts through all the layers of the social pie. It also serves a bracing snort of local color at the time of year when the Mississippi is frozen over, a side of Minnesota that many miss because they flee to warmer climes during the winter. I myself did most of my John Sandford reading from the relative warmth of Missouri; this was my first return to his series of mystery thrillers since I moved back to Minnesota last winter, and I believe in the lyric precision of his landscape writing more strongly than ever.

The 11th Virgil Flowers novel, published in October 2018, is titled Holy Ghost. Meantime there are going-on-29 Lucas Davenport novels, some of which also have Virgil as a character; the latest is currently Twisted Prey. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Jane, Unlimited

Jane, Unlimited
by Kristin Cashore
Recommended Ages: 13+

Jane is a college dropout who is still shaken by the death of her Aunt Magnolia, an undersea wildlife photographer who got caught in a blizzard in Antarctica. The last time Magnolia came back from a photo shoot, she made Jane promise to accept any invitation to visit Tu Reviens, a lavish, cobbled-together mansion on an island off the coast of New York. When she gets just such an invitation from her former tutor Kiran, who grew up there, Jane packs up her umbrella-making supplies and allows herself to get swept into...

Well, what she gets swept into depends on which of five options she chooses at a critical point in this story. Somewhere between a "choose your own adventure" book and an exploration of a multiverse layered with parallel realities, Jane's adventures - depending on which character she decides to follow at that crucial moment - include an art heist investigation, a secret agent caper, a case of paranormal creepy-crawlies, a visit to a dimension in which a convoy of spaceships is all that remains of the Earth, and a fantasy world that I don't dare to describe for fear of blowing the surprise.

At times, while pursuing one path or another, Jane picks up faint echoes of the other might-have-beens. Some versions of her visit to Tu Reviens reflect better on her character than others. Some of them lead to a reasonably good fate, some to a pretty bad one, and only one ties up everything for her in just the way she needs.

It comes together as a uniquely structured book, something like five books in one. It seems to explore a variety of possible stories that could grow wild in the same earth, while leaving the impression that there could have been even more to tell about that weird house with mismatched rooms and the unhappy eccentrics who live there. Grief, loneliness, disillusionment, artistic creativity, feelings of belonging, feelings of being trapped, and fits of dread and shock all come into expressive focus in this one book, which dares to let the curtain drop and let the reader see an author's choices steering the course of a ship-like house, an island, a world. And yet, despite being up-front about its own fictionalness, this book is also an immersive experience.

Adult Content Advisory: Parents who like to keep tabs on what is going into their kids' heads should be advised that this book features some profanity and sexuality, including same-sex attraction and a post-intercourse bedroom scene. It seems to be marketed for teens, but I would advise specifying older teens. On the other hand, a book that invites young readers to wrap their heads around a mash-up of five different fiction genres may both expect and foster a certain maturity of mind.

Kristin Cashore is also the author of the "Seven Kingdoms" books Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue. Her forte seems to be fantasy that challenges genre conventions and develops powerful emotions in its reader. It is interesting to see her striking out into an even more unusual direction. I plan to try to keep up with where she goes from here.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Predator

So, I guess this is the fourth installment in the film franchise that started in 1987 with the "alien hunter stalks commandos in the jungle" movie Predator, which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers and gave former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura his signature line, "I ain't got time to bleed." That was followed up by the 1990 "alien hunter stalks cops in L.A." feature Predator 2, starring Danny Glover, Gary Busey and Bill Paxton. The third one, in 2010, was Predators and it starred Adrien Brody and a bunch of TV-grade talent and, let's face it, I didn't see it. Not numbered in this list is the "Alien vs. Predator" franchise (2004's Alien vs. Predator, starring Lance Henriksen, and 2007's Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, starring nobody in particular), which I suppose is a separate series, or a two-film stunt mashing up the "Predator" and "Alien" series. I haven't seen either of them. I kind of feel that I have to say all this, though, because the titles of the movies are somewhat similar and I, for one, haven't seen them all. I'm missing at least half of the "Predator" mythology, so I can't say anything intelligent about series continuity or whatnot. But if you're like me, you'll probably approach movies with titles like "Predators" with a bit of skittishness, not knowing where it fits into the whole confusing mess.

This one, directed by original movie cast member Shane Black, was a fun diversion on the night of my 46th birthday, when I had nothing else in particular to do. Forgive my ignorance of three out of the previous five movies, but if Movie 1 was "commandos meet Predator in jungle" and Movie 2 was "L.A. cops meet Predator in the big city," I reckon Movie 4 (or 6, if you insist) would have to be "Ragtag group of mentally damaged military misfits go after Predator in the suburbs." Actually, there are two Predators in this one. It's not that there's a good Predator and a bad Predator, so much as that one of them is on the lam and the other one is kind of a bounty hunter going after him, and both of them are bad news for humans. The one being chased is big and bad enough, but the one chasing him is bigger and badder, harder to kill, and he seems to mark the main character (an Army Ranger sniper) as his particular prey. Actually, of course, it's not the sniper himself but his autistic son (played by Auggie from Wonder, not that you'd notice without the Auggie makeup), whom the Predator identifies as his nemesis. Funnily enough, the kid has the goods to fight him. But having a heavily armed dad and a squad of "Loonies" at his back doesn't hurt, much.

There's a lot of carnage and gore and explosive, fast-moving action, almost from the beginning of the movie to the end. Character development is done in broad strokes and seems pretty effective, if you don't notice how heavily it relies on stereotypes about certain psychiatric conditions. A more or less non-stop humorous patter gives a perhaps disturbingly light tone to a movie in which most of the characters die horribly and in which death (including by suicide) is portrayed so calmly, casually, one might even say callously. By now there doesn't seem to be much point in concealing the Predator's appearance, so only a handful of scenes are played for suspense. The adrenaline flow in this outing shows a definite preference toward fight as opposed to flight. What seems to me to be an interesting development is the amount of screen devoted to the Predators' technology, which is pretty spiffy and can actually come in useful, if you have a high-functioning savant along for the gore-fest. Also appearing are government bad guys willing to kill their fellow Americans - sometimes almost as threatening as the alien baddies.

The cast is effective, though only somewhat familiar to me. I know from Thomas Jane, who plays a Loony with Tourette's syndrome. Jake Busey, son of Gary, was in one of my favorite paranormal slasher flicks, Peter Jackson's The Frighteners. Trevante Rhodes, whose character puts the "suicide" into this movie's version of the Suicide Squad, was in 12 Strong, which I saw not too long ago. A couple of the other faces look familiar, but their film and TV credits are pretty much stuff I haven't been watching. So, it's a pretty good ensemble without being headlined by a big star. And it's an entertaining enough movie to suggest that some members of the ensemble might get a shot, in the near future, at becoming a big star. It would be interesting to be able to say you were there to see it happen, the magic moment when someone went from nobody in particular to somebody big. If that happens to anyone in this movie, I'll go out on a limb and predict that it will be Boyd Holbrook, who plays the sniper with the autistic son. He proves in this movie that he can pull off an inwardly tortured but tough and super-capable type, with a vulnerable spot hidden somewhere about him (in this case, his son), and with the strange combination of the ability to be an authority figure and a habitual disregard of authority. That's a mouthful. But it's also a good money-making character type. John Krasinski just recently proved he can pull it off (cf. 13 Hours) and where is he now? Playing Jack Ryan. If the makers of Jack Ryan had waited a beat or two before casting the role, they might have discovered Holbrook. Next time, dude.