Category: Books, Movies, TV & Web

by C.S. Lewis

 

Wikipedia describes British intellectual Lewis as a “Christian apologist.” Really? Maybe I’m misinterpreting the term, but it doesn’t seem to me that Lewis’s writings do much “apologizing” for Christianity.

But I digress. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis plays devil’s advocate — literally — through “Screwtape,” a high-ranking demon and advisor to his nephew “Wormwood,” a novice demon attempting to corrupt a young Englishman. In a series of letters to the nephew, Screwtape details the tricks of their trade: how to plant ungodly thoughts in an individual’s head, and then how to encourage those thoughts to flourish.

This is accomplished chiefly by appealing to the Englishman’s vanities, fears, etc., and then finding ways to justify his delusions. The great Enemy to Screwtape (and Wormwood) is, of course, Christianity.

Lewis said that he found the writing of Screwtape Letters to be “easy,” but also unpleasant. It’s not hard to see why. Like a film actor who enjoys playing villains on screen, it was probably fun to play-act Satan’s assistant. And yet, there are so many depressing aspects to human nature — so many pitfalls to being a good person — that you might not want to dwell in that role for very long.

 

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by Ayn Rand

 

If I read this Ayn Rand novella just 10 years ago, my reaction to it might have gone something like this: “Interesting. Far-fetched, but interesting.”

The dystopian world Rand creates in her story depicts a society in which totalitarian collectivism rules. The protagonist is a confused soul living in a city where nothing is done — or even thought — by “I” or “me.” To do that is a crime. The only acceptable pronoun is “we.” People don’t have names; they are assigned numbers. Everyone follows, like docile sheep, the dictates of the “Council.”

Interesting, I would have thought in 2014. But people are not docile sheep, I would have thought, 10 years ago.

Flash forward to 2024, in which “he” and “she” are routinely replaced by “they,” and in which violating groupthink can cost you your livelihood. Individualism is dangerous because it threatens the well-being of the group, we are told.

I suspect the reason Anthem is not routinely cited with Brave New World and 1984 as warnings about the perils of — insert your “ism” here — is because Rand planned it in 1937 as a magazine article. It’s a very short novel. It doesn’t have the meat of 1984 or Brave New World. But it effectively conveys the same message.

 

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by James Herriot

 

I was seeking relief from the anxiety, tumult, and horror that is politics in 2024. So, when I read the adjectives “warm” and “joyful” in the blurbs for All Creatures Great and Small, I was hoping they weren’t some book publicist’s hyperbole.

Happily, they are not.

Creatures is a series of 67 short stories depicting the life of a young veterinarian in rural Yorkshire, England, in the late 1930s. Real-life vet James Herriot slightly embellishes his encounters with denizens of the countryside in stories that are sometimes sad, often hilarious, but always entertaining. If that sounds a bit sappy, rest assured it is not.

The vignettes are richly varied. In one, Herriot meets a rich man whose wife and daughters hold contempt for him; on the same day, he visits a dirt-poor farmer whose young daughter venerates her father. Which of the two men has a better life?

In another tale, an elderly widower loses his best and only friend: an old dog that Herriot cannot save.

But the majority of the stories are funny. Herriot’s life with his boss and a co-worker — two eccentric, bickering brothers — is a treasure trove of humorous episodes. And then there are the farmers: variously obstinate, inarticulate, hostile, friendly, or admirable.

I highly recommend this book. I would call it “warm” and “joyful.”

 

 

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OK, so I’m a bit late to the party with Game of Thrones. The show ended its run in 2019. But I was curious to find out what the fuss was about, so I spent the past four months binge-watching all 73 episodes.

I had read the first installment of George R.R. Martin’s celebrated Thrones novels years ago. I thought it was OK, but not so good that I wanted to continue reading the books. When it came to fantasy literature, I preferred The Once and Future King, or even the Harry Potter novels.

But HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s books was a cultural phenomenon. And I had missed out (I did see season 1).

In December of last year, I decided it was time for me to check out the entire series.

 

Click on any picture for a larger view

 

Main takeaways: It is a very good show. Not my all-time favorite, which remains Breaking Bad, but it’s probably in my top ten; possibly in my top five. Also, the much-maligned eighth and final season was fine. More on that later. Impressions:

 

1)  Let’s face it. The story is silly. Very silly. It has fire-breathing dragons, witches, giants, and vampire-like ice people. The miracle is that all this fantasy silliness lives in harmony with character-driven scenes in which actors deliver clever, occasionally profound dialogue. There are so many larger-than-life personalities in play, and we know it’s just a matter of time before they clash.

It’s this riveting soap opera that makes the series so addictive — even though the dragons are a hoot. 

 

2)  Season eight’s episode titled “The Bells” is essentially a 60-minute fight scene. Normally, I get bored with fight scenes before 60 seconds elapse.

Too many shows conflate deafening sound effects, speed-of-light edits, and swirling camera angles with “action.” They are not good action. It’s annoying chaos when you cannot tell who is who, what is what, where is where, and when is when.

To this episode’s credit, I was absorbed for the entire hour. Thrones is exceptionally good about this in most of its action scenes.

 

3)  I am going to defend season eight as a whole. I thought it was fine. I’m thinking a lot of fans were disappointed by the ending because their favored characters did not wind up on the throne. If you loved Arya and Arya wound up ruling the seven (or six) kingdoms, you’d probably be fine with season eight. Ditto for Jon Snow, Daenerys, et. al.

Season eight also had satisfying wrap-ups for most of the show’s major characters.

 

King’s Landing

 

4)  Much of the CGI in Game of Thrones looked fake, including King’s Landing castles, and the dragons, but I didn’t care. Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton soldiers in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts also looked fake, but I enjoyed them anyway.

 

5)  The themes were timeless. If you follow politics in 2024, you will recognize many of the same issues and characters in fictional Westeros that we see on the daily news. Are things better with men in charge, or women? How much democracy is too much democracy? Is blood really thicker than water? Are the White Walkers a metaphor for climate change? Would you shoot your abusive father while he is sitting on the john?

 

6) All the gratuitous nudity. Call me old fashioned, or call me a chauvinist pig, but I appreciate that the naked ladies looked like real naked ladies from any historical time period — save the last 30 years. Medieval broads did not have Life Time Fitness. They did not have abs or pecs. They were soft and cuddly.

 

7) Season eight was heavily criticized for abandoning the show’s leisurely pace. But if I had a complaint about earlier seasons, it was that some of the plotlines tended to drag. I am thinking of Arya’s endless apprenticeship as “a girl.” I am thinking of Daenerys’s reign in the continent of Essos. For the most part, Bran’s journey was a bore (the three-eyed fucking raven?).

 

8)  Too often, when the good guys are suddenly surrounded by bad guys, or even armies, and things look dire, they are rescued at the last minute by allies with perfect timing. You can get by with that sort of deus ex machina occasionally, but it happens a lot in Thrones.

 

Overall, Game of Thrones was an excellent show. Its dark moments were often shocking. Its action sequences were well done. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took a lot of shit for, allegedly, letting down fans in the show’s later seasons. I think they did a bang-up job. A better job than George R.R. Martin in the first book.

I’m going to miss Game of Thrones. Is it my favorite show of all time? No. Does it make my top ten? Definitely. In my top five? Hmmm, maybe. Ask me again in a few years.

 

 

Favorite duo:  Arya and “The Hound” (above)

 

Character I was supposed to love, but did not:  Jorah Mormont

 

 

Character I disliked at first. But much like his waistline, he grew on me:  Samwell Tarly (above)

 

Best villain: Can’t list all of them. But here are my top five: Cersei Lannister, Joffrey Baratheon, Tywin Lannister, Ramsay Bolton, Walder Frey

 

 

Glue holding the entire series together:  Tyrion Lannister (above), of course

 

Best nudes:  Because I have little interest in Hodor’s crowbar or Peter’s dinklage, I’m focusing on Thrones’s actresses.

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Carice van Houten (above) was not shy about showing her goods — all of them

 

Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter, Oona (above) in a cheeky scene

 

Hottest Nudes

 

Nathalie Emmanuel front (above) and back (below)

 

 

Emilia Clarke (above and below), who was every (male’s) queen

 

 

 

Airdates: 2011-2019   Grade: A-

 

 

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A Haunting in Venice

 

Alfred Hitchcock said that he did not make “mystery” movies because, unlike his preferred plotlines, whodunits rely more on logic than suspense. Hitchcock chose to feed information to his audience and then keep it on tenterhooks, anxious not about who the killer was, but on when or how the bad guy would strike.

Kenneth Branagh, starring in and directing his third adaptation of an Agatha Christie whodunit, seems to realize that Hitchcock was correct. A Haunting in Venice, in which Branagh once again plays the indomitable Hercule Poirot, swaps suspense for atmosphere. But oh, what atmosphere!

The plot: A cast of typical Christie characters are stranded in a cavernous Venetian palazzo during a storm and, following a séance, learn there is a murderer in their midst. Poirot must unmask the villain while simultaneously battling odd visions. Is he fighting an ordinary criminal or is the supernatural at work?

Not every plot element holds up to inspection, but Venice has never looked lovelier — or creepier. Release: 2023  Grade: B+

 

Would I watch it again? Eventually, yes.

 

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Bodies Bodies Bodies

 

I was ready to write off this movie after the first act. OK, I thought, it’s a whodunit like And Then There Were None meets Any-Slasher-Movie, Gen Z-style. Seven young people gather to party at a mansion during a hurricane, and they are picked off, one by one. Been there, done that — plus, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t stand the music on the soundtrack (yes, I am old).

But a funny thing happens at the end that redeems the whole movie. There is a brilliant twist that I didn’t see coming, and it was good enough that I’m upping my grade from, oh, C-minus to (see below). Kudos to three creative chicks: Kristen Roupenian and Sarah DeLappe, who wrote the film, and Halina Reijn, who directed. Release: 2022  Grade: B+

 

Would I watch it again?  Yes.

 

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by Louise Penny

 

The Plot: 

Someone using a bow and arrow kills a beloved old lady in the woods. Was it an accident, or is someone in an arts-loving Canadian village responsible?

 

What I Liked:

Clues to the killer — and other village secrets — are hidden in a unique setting: the victim’s living-room walls. The walls are adorned with a giant mural depicting the residents of tiny Three Pines. Did the dead woman leave a clue to the identity of her eventual killer in her mural?

That’s a fun idea that I haven’t really seen done before. The detectives, the villagers, and readers alike are invited to ponder this maze-like puzzle.

 

What I Didn’t Care For:

The main characters are a collection of middle-class liberals who believe that, deep down, they are undiscovered great artists. They seem oblivious to the fact that history’s great artists were not often middle-class liberals.

Penny wants us to view lead detective Armand Gamache as an enigmatic, wise man of few words. I saw him as bland and forgettable. (Gamache is much like another low-key detective who leaves me cold, P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh.)

I prefer my protagonists to have a bit more color, a la Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes.

 

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The Invisible Man

 

This is what you don’t need when casting the titular character in The Invisible Man — Cary Grant or Clark Gable. Movie-star looks, it should be apparent, are irrelevant when you can’t be seen.

This is what you do need — A Voice.

Director James Whale hit the jackpot when he cast Claude Rains as doomed chemist Jack Griffin in this 1933 classic. Rains, whom we don’t actually see until the last scene of the film, had The Voice.

In normal-guy mode, Rains’s delivery is sonorous, commanding, and oh-so-British. But when poor Jack literally loses his looks, and then his mind … talk about putting the “mad” in mad scientist.

I still wake up in the middle of the night hearing his gleeful, piercing cackles.

OK, so the special effects are what you might expect from a 90-year-old movie (crude — but amusing). But overall, The Invisible Man has a winning combination: Rains’s incomparable voice acting and Whale, the king of campy horror, delivering fast-paced, entertaining set pieces.

Release: 1933  Grade: A-

 

Would I watch it again? Happily.

 

Whale, left, on the set of “The Invisible Man”

 

*

 

Thanksgiving

 

Eli Roth has been accused of making mean-spirited, unpleasant, misogynistic movies. I’m talking about films like Hostel, or The Green Inferno. That might or might not explain why Roth pivots toward more mainstream with his latest directorial effort, Thanksgiving.

Love or hate Roth’s previous films, they were at least interesting. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is just another teen slasher flick. A masked killer picks off vapid kids, one by one. Gory kills abound. Sound familiar?  Yeah, too familiar. Release: 2023 Grade: C

 

Would I watch it again? No.

 

*

 

Evil Dead Rise

 

What I liked:

Actress Alyssa Sutherland has the perfect face to play a mother who is possessed by a demon. That face was not lost on the film’s marketing team; it’s what we see in most of the posters (see above). Sutherland has an excellent evil grin.

I liked the setting. The filmmakers ditch the obligatory cabin in the woods for a creepy, decrepit high-rise apartment building. Reminded me a bit of the old building in Rec.

What I disliked:

There is one movie trope that irritates me more than the “it was only a dream” cliché, and that is the monster who refuses to die. There is little suspense to be had when you can predict, with 99 percent certainty, that the “killed” demon is only resting.

Gore and a deafening soundtrack are no substitutes for genuine suspense — even in a horror movie.

I enjoy the Evil Dead franchise, movies and the TV series. But most of them have one element that is lacking in Evil Dead Rise: humor. Release: 2023 Grade: B-

 

Would I watch it again? Probably not.

 

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Thoughts on Big, Bad Barbie

 

Satire works best when it has at least a trace of subtlety. Barbie, the live-action cartoon from director Greta Gerwig, has all the subtlety of a fart in the face. Its message: Patriarchy is bad, patriarchy is everywhere. Patriarchy is responsible for all the (primarily female) misery in the world.

If only feminists always had the upper hand and men had more feminine natures, everything would be great!

 

**

 

Plot:  Margot Robbie’s “stereotypical Barbie” leaves her Mattel-created fantasy land and discovers the horrors of the real world, in which men dominate and women are downtrodden.

Barbie (and Ken) returns to fantasy land, having learned a valuable lesson. Everything is better when men are their “true” selves (i.e., more like women) and women assume their natural roles of running everything.

Uh-huh.

 

**

 

 

In the Barbies’ fantasy land, women drive pink convertibles (likely built by men) and live in dream homes (likely built by men) and idle away their days complimenting each other, dancing … and taking men for granted.

In the so-called real world (which is apparently 1965), construction workers slap women on the ass. Every Supreme Court justice is male. Every member of corporate boards of directors is male. The injustice of all this male domination culminates in a pity-party speech by Oscar-nominated America Ferrera (above). She wails about how difficult and unfair it is to be a modern-day woman.

I am sure there are coal miners, single dads, and military amputees — most of them men — who shed tears as they listen to Ferrera’s heart-felt speech.

 

**

 

Margot Robbie (not Oscar-nominated) and Ryan Gosling (Oscar-nominated) as Barbie and Ken:

They play plastic dolls in goofy, likeable manners. That’s it.

Somehow, I doubt that Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier are having their acting-chops legacies challenged.

 

**

 

Ugh. I had to pause this movie at the halfway point because it was so tedious. As if the insufferable musical numbers weren’t enough to put me off.

Here’s a novel thought: Maybe, just maybe, the world works best when men and women use their complementary traits to problem solve — rather than by glorifying one sex and demonizing the other.

 

**

 

I’m giving Barbie an average grade because, despite its propagandizing and politics, it is a handsome production, and it does have some witty dialogue. And although it’s too long, it’s certainly thought-provoking.

Release: 2023 Grade: C-

 

 

 

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Society of the Snow

 

There aren’t many true stories that inspire multiple first-rate movie and book adaptations. A 1972 plane crash in the Andes, in which just 16 of 45 passengers survived — including a grueling 72 days stuck on a mountain — is one of them. The book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors is superb. A 1993 movie, also titled Alive, is riveting. Now we can add this Spanish-language production, which might be the best rendition of all.

The harrowing flight disaster is remembered today, in part, because the group of mostly young men had to resort to cannibalism to survive. But what resonates most for me about this saga is not the cannibalism, but rather the heroism. Release: 2023  Grade: A

 

Would I watch it again?  Yes, but not right away.

 

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