Category Archives: Reviews

The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts

The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts by Owen Davies was first published in England in 2007. A paperback was released in the United States in 2009. The Haunted is not a traditional or linear history. Davies looks at trends spanning several centuries, from the Reformation to the present day. By exploring these trends, he hopes to explain how and why England has become so “haunted.”

Debates over ghost belief reveal much about England’s social and intellectual history. Davies makes a compelling argument that being haunted by the dead is part of the human condition, at least for a significant portion of the population, as all attempts to eradicate ghost belief over the past 500 years have failed.

Davies divides his book into three parts: Experience (what did ghosts look like, where were they found, and how have people tried to find them?), Explanation (how have people made sense of ghost sightings?), and Representation (how have people sought to replicate or reproduce ghosts and ghostly phenomenon?). The Haunted runs the gamut of English (and some Continental) cultural and intellectual experience, but its organization opens these topics to the reader in an easy to digest format. Every chapter explains the key players, arguments, and trends, while offering plenty of primary examples.

Most studies of ghosts from 1700 on primarily rely on four authors who collected hundreds of accounts, but these accounts were collected from the middle and upper classes. They say little about the beliefs of rural and urban working classes, who made up the majority of the population. Davies scours a grab bag of sources to add these voices to the discussion, while never losing sight of the dominant intellectual trends.

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Rough Night: A Morally-Bankrupt Comedy

When Jessica “Jess” Thayer (Scarlett Johansson) decides to plan a wedding while running for state senate, she’ll need a little help from her college friends, Alice (Jillian Bell), Frankie (Ilana Glazer), Blair (Zoë Kravitz), and Pippa (Kate McKinnon), to pull off a wild bachelorette party in Miami. Hilarity ensues when the ladies get drunk, snort a bunch of cocaine, and accidentally murder a male stripper, all while leading Jess’ loyal fiance, Peter (Paul W. Downs), to believe she wants to cancel the wedding. In the end, they get away Scott free because, well, I guess manslaughter isn’t a thing in Florida. Comedy gold!

Since the success of Bridesmaids (2011), there have been a slew of female-led comedies, but none have quite recaptured the magic of that film. Rough Night is something of a cross between Bridesmaids and The Hangover (2009), or a gender-swap of Very Bad Things (1998). It was written by partners Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs and directed by Aniello. Aniello, a former member of the improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, writes and produces Comedy Central’s Broad City. This is her directorial debut. Ilana Glazer and Paul Downs also hail from Broad City.

In Very Bad Things, a bachelor party in Las Vegas goes out of control when the drunk and coked up men (see a pattern?) accidentally kill a stripper and a hotel security guard. Roger Ebert said Very Bad Things, “isn’t a bad movie, just a reprehensible one. It presents as comedy things that are not amusing” and assumes “an audience has no moral limits and will laugh at cruelty simply to feel hip.” That’s how I feel about Rough Night.

I normally don’t judge movies from a moral standpoint, because I realize people watch movies, especially comedies, to see situations and characters way outside the norm. It’s escapism. But the more I think about Rough Night, the more morally adrift it seems. There are no consequences for anything that happens in the movie. Not only are there no consequences, but everyone’s life actually improves in the end. Because it turns out the “stripper” was actually a bank robber, it helps Jess’ campaign. Alice hooks up with the real stripper, and Frankie and Blair rekindle their college romance.

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Wonder Woman: A Dark Fantasy-Adventure

Wonder Woman was written by Zack Snyder and Allan Heinberg and directed by Patty Jenkins [Monster (2003) and The Killing (2011-2012)]. It stars Gal Gadot [Keeping up with the Joneses (2016), Furious 7 (2015)] as Diana, Chris Pine [Star Trek (2009), Hell or High Water (2016)] as American spy Steve Trevor, and Danny Huston [Hitchcock (2012), Robin Hood (2010), 30 Days of Night (2007)] as General Ludendorff.

Diana/Wonder Woman is a young, fearless woman with a mysterious destiny who lives on an idyllic island with fellow Amazon warriors. They spend their days preparing for a conflict with the Greek god of war, Ares. One day, a pilot (Steve Trevor) crash lands in the ocean and Diana saves him. The German Navy is in pursuit, and after a brief battle the Amazons defeat the German search party. Diana helps Trevor get off the island and return to 1918 Europe, where she thinks Ares has orchestrated the First World War.

Wonder Woman is enjoyable and fast-paced. It’s 141 minutes but never feels that long. The action is never exhausting until the end, when of course there has to be some apocalyptic battle between Wonder Woman and Ares. Through interacting with a cast of characters from 1918 Europe and America, Diana becomes disillusioned with humanity. In the end, Trevor’s sacrifice to destroy a new poison gas developed by General Ludendorff’s chemist, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), makes Diana realize humanity might be worth saving after all.

The “fish out of water” scenes are genuinely funny and charming. The interaction between Diana and Trevor is great, but you never really have a sense of them falling in love (they share an identical dance scene to the one between Peter Quill and Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy to establish their chemistry). It’s another “two hot people hook up”-type of romance.

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Alien: Covenant – A Messy Prequel-Sequel

Alien: Covenant (2017) stars Katherine Waterston as a colony ship scientist named Daniels, and Michael Fassbender, who plays dual roles as two androids named David and Walter, in a sci-fi horror film and the latest installment in the Alien franchise. It was directed by Ridley Scott and written by John Logan and Dante Harper. John Logan is an accomplished screen writer, but this was Dante Harper’s first screenplay. Michael Green (of Sex and the City and Green Lantern) and Jack Paglen are credited with writing the story.

So many different writers is probably why Alien: Covenant felt like so many different films. It was supposed to be a sequel to Prometheus (2012), but often felt like a reboot of Alien (1979). Minus the events on the planet’s surface, Alien: Covenant was basically an updated version of the original. It flirted with its roots as a horror film, but lacked tension and suspense.

Alien: Covenant begins in a sterile room with Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his synthetic creation, David. They muse on the nature of creation before the film shifts to the colonization ship Covenant, which is heading toward a remote planet, Origae-6. A neutrino burst damages the ship as it is recharging, killing some colonists as well as the ship’s captain, Jacob Branson (James Franco). The crew wakes up and Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) takes command. While making repairs, pilot Tennessee Faris (Danny McBride) hears a strange signal. The crew tracks the signal to a nearby planet and decides to investigate.

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The Founder

The Founder (2016) stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, who took a local California fast food restaurant called McDonald’s and turned it into a global, multi-billion dollar empire. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch co-star as McDonald’s founders Richard and Maurice McDonald. It was written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, who also directed Saving Mr. Banks (2013) and The Blind Side (2009).

Ray Kroc was born in Oak Park, Illinois and he opened his first McDonald’s franchise on Lee Street in Des Plaines, where I grew up. I passed by the old McDonald’s museum hundreds of times, but never knew the story of how McDonald’s got its start. Ray Kroc himself was responsible for much of the popular mythology behind the company’s founding. His claim of being “the founder,” despite his first McDonald’s restaurant actually being the ninth, was so ostentatious, it turned out to be the perfect title for a film about his life.

The film charts Ray Kroc’s rise from struggling milkshake salesman to restaurant/real estate mogul, his tumultuous relationship with the McDonald brothers and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), and his unshakable faith in persistence. The movie’s first half tells the inspiring story of how Kroc turns around his business prospects despite daunting odds. The second half shows him screwing over everyone who helped him along the way, even stealing a restaurant owner’s wife.

The Founder is historically accurate, for the most part. Some of Kroc’s relationships are simplified for the sake of plot, including omitting a brief second marriage before marrying Joan, the restaurant owner’s wife. In real life, Joan was not actually married to the restaurant owner as the film depicts, but to another man who became a manager at McDonald’s. It also omits Ray’s daughter, Marilyn.

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Marley Parker Takes on Urban Legend Killers in Redletter

Squeezing Jagger tighter against my chest, I read the words “Bloody Marley” written in bright red lipstick across the bathroom mirror. The tube of lipstick was laying haphazardly in the bathroom sink, broken and mushed.

Marley Parker, feisty college journalist turned amateur sleuth, is back in her third and final book: Redletter by Maria Sigle. Released in May, Redletter follows Marley Parker as she tries to move beyond the traumatic events of the past and start a career at WKLP News. Her first breaking news story, however, ominously foretells a tough road ahead. When the Candyman Killer appears in Greenbriar, Marley will face her biggest challenge yet.

Halloween is usually a time to celebrate in the small Midwestern town of Greenbriar, a week-long event bringing family and friends together. This Halloween, however, someone begins reenacting urban legends with gruesome results. First, a high school student dies after eating Halloween candy. Then, a woman’s body is discovered floating near a bridge with the letters “OCC” written on her back. Can Marley decipher this clue in time to prevent another murder–perhaps her own?

In Marley Parker and A Rumor of Ghosts, Marley often acted selflessly, even at great personal risk, but also relied on others for help–her sister, Jade; her father, Sheriff Tony Parker; her best friend, Fuchsia Darling; Granny Annie; and even her love interest, wealthy playboy Rob Cummings. This time, she’ll be forced to go it alone as a duo of anonymous killers target the ones she cares about the most.

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