Monday, January 30, 2012


Firefly and I didn't get off to a good start. My first taste of the series was through the movie, Serenity, and it tasted awful. Though portrayed as a stand-alone sci-fi adventure romp, Serenity was more an extended finale for this series which, at the time, I had never heard of. My expectations betrayed and confronted with a cast of characters more irritating than likable, I resolved that Firefly was not a show for me.

However, peer pressure and universal praise poked at my reluctance. Renowned as “the best TV show ever made” by countless people I both do and do not know, I grudgingly considered the fact that perhaps I was being recalcitrant simply because I enjoy being a contrarian when it comes to popular media. Its appearance on Netflix's Watch Instantly sealed the deal; I felt like I had to give it a shot or else be unfair when gleefully crowing over its failings to outraged friends.

Hesitant Beginnings

The first thing I have to note is that it takes a number of episodes to get into the series. Firefly has an incredibly quirky cast in a exceedingly peculiar setting, and that takes some getting used to. A space western where starships travel the cosmos from one rustic, backwater planet to another? A puzzling mix of Chinese and Western cultures into a mishmash of who-knows-what? Old-fashioned duels and shootouts next to space battles and laser blasters? It strains the mind in a way that it is not used to and the genre blend, while ambitious, sometimes seems too far-fetched to embrace.

Character-wise, we have the roguish Han Solo archetype in Captain Mal Reynolds. A nerdy joke-cracking pilot. An insane and whimsical little girl. A gruff simple-minded mercenary for hire. A lovable cutesy mechanic. And more. It's a bizarre bunch of folks and, to be frank, at first they come off as more annoying than anything. Watching the crew goofily bumble about a Chinese-English space western potpourri... Something about it, at first, just seems to be too much.

Greatness Reached?

But, somewhere along the line, this changes. The characters gain more depth. They show sides of themselves that we haven't yet seen. And they get put into situations that actually make you feel for them and fear for their lives. For me, that moment was the episode where Mal is forced to stay behind with the ship and try vainly to fix it before he dies of oxygen deprivation. Things get worse, and his apparent saviors decide instead to shoot him and steal everything. This episode, along with the preceding “Our Mrs. Reynolds” illustrated to me that the series was capable of balancing the humor with more mature, intricate, and compelling storylines.

And things get only better from there on out. Most of the characters become quite endearing, and the interactions between them, flawed and different as they all are in their own ways, are touching and grow on you. To those who read this blog regularly it'll come as no surprise that my favorite character was Mal. But I also enjoyed so many others immensely. Jayne, Kaylee, and Wash were consistently hilarious with some of the best lines. Those who I didn't care for at first (Simon, Shepherd, River) slowly shifted into more interesting multi-faceted characters. And those members of the cast who I didn't like much at all (Inara, Zoe) were relegated to side roles where I didn't have to pay much attention to them. It is to the show's credit that it also had some quite interesting villains. Jubal Early in particular was incredibly intriguing to watch; it's been a while since I've seen a character like that in any story.


All in all, I enjoyed my time with Firefly, though I found the first few episodes slightly tedious. But is it the best show I've ever seen? No. It was undoubtedly entertaining, but the setting just didn't click for me over time. I've nothing wrong with westerns or science fiction, but combining the two just felt too often forced. The constant inclusion of Chinese language and culture never really seemed convincing. And the deliberately 'Western' feeling sections just didn't make much sense given the context of interstellar travel and that level of technology.

But I could definitely see the promise of the show. The dialogue was positively hilarious and the majority of characters were memorable. It is something that could have been truly great if only it had more time to share its message. So I suppose that makes me one of the horde who regret Fox Network's abrupt cancellation of it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Nightwatch (1997)

by DionysusPsyche

This bizarre little treasure I credit to Netflix. I'll be honest, it wasn't my first pick, but the cast of popular names struck my fancy, and I decided to give it a go.

Ewan McGregor stars as Martin Bells, a university grad student who takes what he assumes will be a boring position as a nightwatchman at a morgue. “I'll study,” he tells people, hoping to earn some easy cash for his daytime professional student on his way through law school.

Except, he won't.

The film starts by dividing Martin's life into two separate sections. The first is his social life—with his girlfriend (Patricia Arquette), his friend James (Josh Brolin), and James' girlfriend (Lauren Graham, Gilmore Girls). James comes off as a thrill-seeking dillhole who treats Lorelai Gilmore like trash (we're not sure why since she's clearly prettier and nicer and can hold her own better than Patricia Arquette). However, James admits that his interest, bemusement, and ability to feel things is beginning to wane. The world (and he's, what, in his twenties? So he sounds like a jerk) has become dull to him, and his way of living has become to challenge life which he encourages Martin to do as well.

The second part of Martin's life consists of his night job at the morgue, which at first seems like your average new job with its rules. The old night watchman (an American version of Bill Nighy) spooks him on his first walk through in a more interesting start than Night at the Museum instructing him on a few necessary items he'll need that the ad conveniently left out. After all, there is a murderer that has recently struck the town, as Inspector Thomas Cray (Nick Nolte) reports on the nightly ongoing news investigation.

After that, I was left guessing whether what Martin was seeing was really happening or if he was just starting to imagine things in the shadows and fears of the late hours and frightening backdrop. The movie draws his two worlds closer and closer together as Martin fears for his sanity, his dignity, and his life. It also includes what could become one of my favorite last lines of a movie ever.

I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. Early cameos by John C. Reilly and Lauren Graham were exciting, whereas I barely recognized Ewan McGregor and Josh Brolin. The acting is great, and the film portrayed excellent harbingers of death that brought to mind the later film The Sixth Sense. Keep in mind that there is nudity, violence, explicit language, and loud, scary music and screaming. An all around good movie.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Let The Right One In / Let Me In

Written by Joe the Revelator

After watching Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In, which is about a young boy who befriends an immortal in the guise of a 12 year old girl, I sat through the American version Let Me In. And before I go on, I'd now like to warn anyone reading this; much the rest of this post will be nothing more than angry, misdirected vitriol at American cinema for botching a perfectly good movie.

You have to invite me in...

Let The Right One In, in essence, is about a young, bewitching vampire who must replace her longtime human familiar. The poor old fellow with shaky hands has gotten a little too long in the tooth, and can't supply his ward with as much blood as she requires to remain vaguely human. His successor is young Oscar, a boy who is dealing with bullies at school as well as the messy aftermath of his parents' divorce. So much chaos in his life makes him rather pliable as a potential partner for the vampire; i.e. She must mold him into a killer.

What follows is two hours of childlike wonder with short fits of violence, and the incredible ability of the adolescent mind to cope with things far beyond the norm. Oscar's loneliness before meeting the vampire is palpable, and his pleasant, reserved personality make his acceptance of her dark nature feel organic. There is more beauty in this film than I would have expected, given the subject matter and the age of the characters.

By the end of the movie I felt Oscar's new role as Eli's daytime protector was deserved, and their relationship was as mutual as possible, given their circumstances.

The shriek of violins mean I'm supposed to be scared.

The American remake, Let Me In, is ripped off almost line-for-line and scene-for-scene, except it's given a louder, less subtle score, and has the unpleasant moments dulled down for American audiences. They removed the scene where Oscar catches a glimpse of the Eli while she's changing, and is shocked to learn she's missing her girl-parts (on account of being a vampire) which is only implied in the American version. As well as Eli's explanation of why she chose Oscar; because on the inside he's got the potential to become a cold-blooded murderer.

Chloe Graze Moretz, who starred in Kickass as Hitgirl, does a wonderful job playing the vampire of Let Me In. Her ability to transition from seemingly angelic to ferocious, albeit helped by the effects department, is fantastic. Though she doesn't quite nail the haunted appearance of Lina Leandersson. And at no point was there any question as to her motive with Oscar (Owen in this version). She was recruiting him, plain and simple, and he is far more vicious than the fair-haired human counterpart of the original. We are first introduced to Owen while he's naked from the waist up, wearing a creepy translucent mask, staring at himself in the mirror and threatening to cut a girl.

The graphics are better in the remake. Eli's transformations from passably human to vampire are more violent, which actually detracts a bit from the compassion felt between the two. And as I mentioned, every fight or shocking moment is punctuated by an orchestral crescendo, instead of the cold, silent drifting sensation you get from the original.

Why oh why?

Let The Right One In is a fantastic movie, though it may feel plodding at first, and is more drama than thriller. This is not a horror movie in the traditional sense, but is absolutely worth watching.

I feel the remake Let Me In is analogous to American censorship in general. Even the ending is more brutal than the original, with more struggling and splashing and body parts being strewn about. But the lights are turned off. It's like the director was filming a steamy sex scene instead of a bloodbath, the birth of a killer and the galvanizing of their friendship.

Is there such a lack of original story in Hollywood these days? Why remake a movie that isn't outdated yet, especially when the source material is better than the director's new "vision"? It was stated that Matt Reeves, director, wanted to make it more accessible to wider audiences. To this I ask; should those of us in the mood for steak buy a delectable porterhouse, or must everything be ground up into burger patties for the public?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Uncharted 3

The Uncharted series is well-known for being very high quality entertainment in the video game genre. Inspired by the world-spanning adventures of one Indiana Jones, they tend to have compelling stories with hilarious dialogue. Nathan Drake and his friends are interesting and multifaceted. The scenery is beautiful and often takes in a huge range of locales. From the icy caverns of Nepal to the jungles of Borneo, it is hard not to be swept up for the ride.

From a gaming standpoint, the series also excels by virtue of being balls-out insane. The hugest contributors to this is the fact that the game's creators have a habit of sitting in a room, thinking of the most absurdly awesome action set-pieces imaginable, and then building the story around them. The games are an action movie fan's fondest dream. A gunfight in a collapsing building? Oh yeah. A chase scene taking place atop a train being strafed by a half dozen helicopters? Totally happens. Fistfighting in the rain as a giant tsunami bears down on you and the ship graveyard surrounding you? YES.

Does Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, the latest of these games, live up to the series' stellar and epic reputation?

Thoughts on Gameplay

Uncharted 3 has some of the most stunning and jaw-dropping action scenes I've ever seen, much less played. Fighting your way out of a cruiser as it is sinking during a tropical thunderstorm is just insane and would be an epic climax to any game, but for Uncharted 3 that is merely what happens in a single level. It is one crazy moment of dozens. Have you ever struggled to stay alive in a cargo plane that is falling apart all around you, get sucked out and then barely manage to dive for a parachute in mid-air while rubble and bad guys fly all around you? Ever been in a bar fight where you have to break through doors, slam toilets into people, and fend off baddies with pool cues? Narrowly escaped an ancient castle that is burning down all around you? Uncharted 3 lets you do that and so much more... I could keep going but I would just end up taking up an entire page talking about the ridiculous shenanigans you can get up to in this game.

However, unlike its predecessor, this action is tainted by sequences of repetitive gunfighting that are more annoying than enjoyable. That flooding cruiser fight in the stormy seas? I didn't mention that, to get to it, you have to slog your way through at least an hour of mind-numbing shooting and frustrating exploration of old, rusty busted sea vessels. This is not fun to do. One thing that the Uncharted games tend to get right is having you play in an exciting aesthetic that keeps interest and staves off fatigue. Uncharted 3 failed to do this effectively on a number of occasions. My friends and I found ourselves idly wondering how many people Drake had killed throughout the game; this is indicative of how much continual combat you have to suffer through to get to the gems of excellence.

Thoughts on Story

The first Uncharted focused on Drake's budding relationship with the investigative reporter, Elena, while searching for treasure in South America. The second Uncharted gave Drake a nemesis shadow of himself, Flynn, and created a love triangle between him, Elena, and the sultry adventurer, Chloe, with them looking into legendary relics in Nepal. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception chooses to put the spotlight on Drake's background and relationship with his roguish father figure, Sully, as they explore for clues of artifacts in North Africa.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing to focus on. Though it is easy to speculate of treasure hunting and narrowly avoiding the law, we don't actually know much about Drake or Sully's past. The problem is that we don't end up learning all that much new about these characters. We get to see the circumstances surrounding their first meeting and Drake's Aladdin-like tendencies when he was a kid but, beyond that, it seems like the big reveal is learning that Drake has always been a compulsive treasure hunter. As this is abundantly clear from playing any of the games for more than ten minutes, having that aspect of him focused on was disappointing. They try to give it weight by having Drake's friends get endangered by his obsession but, for whatever reason, it never really sinks in.

Part of that, I think, is because the action of the game created a disjointed feeling between story and gameplay. Having an epic chase scene and then having someone (usually Chloe or Elena) berate Drake over it doesn't really resonate when you are still exhilarated by the experience. Also, having an hour or two of tedious shooting through bad guys can lead to disinterest and a disconnection with the overall plot. Spending a long time repeatedly trying not to die can lead one to forget why you are there in the first place.

In addition, the story suffered by lieu of the fact that things are so much more exciting when the gang is all together. Having Drake, Sully, Cutter, and Chloe teamed up at the beginning was awesome, but things just went downhill when, for whatever reason, they decided to just have Drake and Sully hang out and do all the heavy lifting. Elena (who, for the record, is Drake's main love interest) has less screen time than pretty much everyone else, which was shocking considering how popular and central her character is within the series. Drake and Sully are cool, but the choice to sidetrack the rest of the cast and focus only on those two made no sense and was disappointing.

Finally, the villains were uninspiring and the 'final treasure', as it were, was stupid. I still have no real idea what Marlowe and Talbot's motivations were. And having this epic castle of the sands merely contain a funky hallucinogen felt anti-climactic. Why would anyone go to so much trouble and effort to go to this place for such a drug when it would almost certainly be more cost-effective and efficient to produce one of your own? Having the final battle essentially reduced to a quick-time event (press the right button at the right time to win) had me also feeling cheated. A good boss battle should have you test the skills you've acquired throughout the game in one last culminating confrontation that truly matters. Instead it was merely a matter of reflexes against someone who had already lost. Disappointing.


But perhaps the real enemy here was my own expectations. While the first Uncharted bugged the hell out of me, the second was truly magnificent in every way, having me incredibly excited to play this game. Virtually every review glowed and, with a reputation for cinematic brilliance beyond any game and rivaling most movies, perhaps I set the bar too high. After all, Uncharted 3 had some incredible moments and there were definitely a number of scenes that “captured the magic”. But this excellence wasn't constant, which has me coming out of it with more nitpicking criticisms than gushing over how awesome it was.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

You Better Not Cry (2010)

by DionysusPsyche

I wanted this review ready to go for Christmas, but you'll just have to add this to your book list for 2012. You Better Not Cry is Burroughs' sixth book and fifth work of non-fiction; a series of Christmas stories throughout his life. Be forewarned though, these stories do not start, “ 'Twas the night before Christmas,” nor do the chapters end with a cup of hot cocoa and dreams of sugar plum fairies dancing through your head.

Reading his essays of Christmas Past is more like reading from Scrooge's diary, and finding out that as a small boy, Scrooge had a twisted, unhappy home with a pill-popping mom and an alcoholic dad. Except Scrooge is mean and exacting, while Burroughs is amusing, eccentric, and particular. Whether it's reading about his confusion between Jesus and Santa Claus, his fear of becoming homeless, or manipulating his parents, Burroughs uses his background in advertising to not only appeal to his audience with his words, but to give his readers immediate gratification. Each of his essays are unwrapped like a nice present under the tree.

I enjoyed his books, but then I've also breezed through Magical Thinking and Dry. This was shorter than his other literature, although also provides less background which initially helped me aclimate to Burroughs' style of writing. He's like fellow essayist David Sedaris, if David Sedaris was biting and used to be an alcoholic. He's an ex-advertising executive (a Mad Man, if you like that show), an athiest, and gay. However, Burroughs is darker than Sedaris. Funnier over all, but also a pinch of Chuck Palanuik's uncomfortable reality behind what he writes. He starts with the most horrifying story (in my opinion) and ends on the happiest note as if to say that he lived happily ever last.

I recommend this for anyone who loves Burroughs' other work, Sedaris's work (I like 1 ½ books he's written), the show Mad Men, or a love/hate relationship with Christmas. Ease with sexual orientation and uncomfortable situations is best as well (I'm not talking The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm discomfort, we're talking some Palanuik or removing a splinter discomfort). It's an easy read on a plane or if you're waiting for someone/something.

Monday, January 23, 2012


Each of us have movies from our childhood that we've long since forgotten. When asked what our favorite kids' movies are, we have at least a half dozen on the tip of our tongue, movies that we remember loving that, when we sweep away the haze of nostalgia, perhaps no longer have the resonance that they once did. We talk of them, we treasure them, but we rarely go back to watch them again unless seized by a feeling on one special rainy day.

But once, every so often, we can stumble across one that we've lost track of. A movie that, surprisingly, is just as good as we remember it being; we find a movie able to make one laugh, smile, and cry just as it did a long time ago. For it to weather the test of time and be just as appealing now as it once was, that is something worth treasuring. Though the word has become lessened by Disney's overuse of it, I dare say that finding a movie that has the staying power to tug on your heartstrings decades after you first saw it is truly magical.

For me, that movie was Hook.

An Adult's Perspective
Peter, don't you know who you are?”

What was immediately interesting to me was the fact that, when you think about it, the premise to Hook is incredibly dark. Set as a sequel to the events that we know in love, it involves Peter grown up as an unhappy and misguided older man obsessed with his unimportant job. He is fat, afraid of heights, ignores his children, and has complete amnesia regarding the events of his youth. He remembers nothing of once knowing how to fly, of the endless adventures of Neverland with Tinkerbell and his troupe of Lost Boys, of how to put everything aside and simply take joy in the exuberance of being forever young. When told of his past by an old Wendy, he rejects it as lunacy.

Hook then proceeds to kidnap his children in order to provoke Peter into a final confrontation, but it is clear that Peter Pan isn't even a shadow of what he once was. He lies piteously unable to rescue his children and gives up entirely. The Lost Boys almost completely reject him. Tinkerbell laments the Peter he once was. Hook then decides that the ultimate revenge would be to subvert Peter's own children against him, brainwashing them so that they think that Hook is their father, not Peter.

Taken on the surface, all of this is a nightmare. I'm not sure I could even think of a more disturbing way to twist the tale. What's funny is that none of this really sunk in or occurred to me when I was younger.

Youth Reborn
Dark and sinister man, have at thee.”

But this dark spin is concealed well, hidden by an immaculate veil of adventure, heroism, and rediscovery. We all know of Neverland and the adventures of Peter Pan, but not like this. In the current day and age, it is easy to forget that Steven Spielberg was a great director; movies such as War of the Worlds and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull have tainted his once faultless reputation. But watching Hook made that all slide away, unimportant and forgotten. Hook simply exudes life. Neverland is vibrant and beautiful. The homes of the Lost Boys and the pirates each are unique, chock full of color and vision. Having once been a theater nerd in high school and college, I gazed awestruck at the sheer amount of props and wild set design throughout. The theater feel is very powerful in this film, and it makes me wonder if it was intentional.

On top of that, the acting is phenomenal. Robin Williams somehow transitions seamlessly and perfectly from jaded, old, stressed man going through a mid-life crisis to a spritely, wild-haired, daring Peter Pan crowing to the sky without a care in the world. Dustin Hoffman is completely unrecognizable as Hook. For a rather short man, he manages to have an astounding presence in the film. Hoffman nails Hook's ennui with life without an adversary in one moment, then turns around and roars with laughter as he serves as Pan's nemesis in another. Julia Roberts fares excellently in the comparatively thankless role of the mischievous fairy, Tinkerbell. And on and on. Smee is superb. Wendy is perfect. Rufio is, well, RU-FI-OOOOOOOOOOOOO!

That's right, Peter. Second star to the right and straight on til morning!”

And, as crown to the epic and wondrous spectacle that is Hook, we have the stunning score courtesy of John Williams of Star Wars fame. With brilliant acting, a beautiful soundtrack, phenomenal production, it is hard not to love this movie. It is alternately bittersweet, heroic, tragic, and heartwarming. Peter's growth from worn, fearful man to one that is carefree and brilliant is truly glorious to watch and, though his journey ends with him a flying and dashing daredevil, it still serves as a beacon of inspiration to anyone watching who might feel down on themselves and perhaps questioning of their future.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Everything Must Go (Film 2011)

by Dionysuspsyche

Nick has what can only be described as one of the worst days of his life. After many years as a salesman, he is let go, given only a trinket as a souvenior as his time with them. To make matters worse, his wife, now ex-wife, has excavated him from their house and has put all his things on the lawn.

He meets a boy down the street, and ends up teaching him the art of salesmanship and connecting/helping his audience. What Nick lacks in real life, he makes up for in mentorship. Kenny, the boy, and Nick teach each other important lessons about life. One of the lessons? The name of this movie.

I hesitate to call this a dark comedy, but at times that is what it mimics. This is a story about coming to grips with your situation and not taking those around you for granted. Nick's current reality unravels for him to pick up the threads and begin reweaving his life.

My feelings on this movie were mixed. It's a Sundance film, so you know it's not going to be your carbon copy Hollywood hit. It has a good lesson, but parts of this movie are extremely screwed up, bizarre, and unfair (which is true of art imitating life). Awkwardness abound, but heartwarming also. Hard to watch at times and off, but also different than many of the other films I watched. It's like American Beauty without all the death, dream sequences, and sexuality. I would like to say that many of the step-by-step situations in this film seem manipulated and not true to life—although maybe these were important metaphors that I missed.

The messages are important: don't let your addictions/failures/lack of effort take over your life. Resolve your problems with your spouse/family members, and when it's time to move on, although there will be sorrow, grief, and reluctance, it must happen sooner or later.

For anyone who's going through a life crisis or trying to move beyond your past or if you're thinking of having a garage sale, this one's for you. If not, it's probably not up your alley.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Something Borrowed (Film 2011 vs. Novel)

By Dionysuspsyche
The concept intrigued me the first time I saw the trailer. Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) is an upstart lawyer who falls for her elementary school best friend's fiancé, Dex (Colin Egglesfield). Our heroine is the anti-fiancé stealing type, buried in her work at a job she hates. Her friend, Darcy, is a fun PR rep, and every B one could think of—bold, brazen, beautiful, bossy, and...bitchy.

Our initial encounter happens at Rachel's 30th birthday where she is feeling the epitome of the first downer milestone birthday. To her, Darcy (Kate Hudson) holds the world in the palm of her hand, and Rachel gets the honor of watching from the sidelines.

Let's stare into each other's eyes until the audience becomes morally ambiguous
What the book does an excellent job of conveying that the movie fails to do is that despite Darcy's always me-first attitude, she genuinely cares about Rachel at least half of the time. Rachel reciprocates this and tries to go the extra mile, partially out of guilt. The author also does a superior job of showing that Rachel is much closer to Dex and Darcy than they are to each other, and while Rachel is Darcy's childhood best friend, Dex is a better friend to her. It also acknowledges the tremedous stress that Rachel is under—both at work and in her social circle. Age is personified in the movies and across America, and despite the increased awareness of different lifestyles and everything in its own time, women are still somewhat stigmatized when it comes to conventional roles. Doubt me? Guys: ask your female friends, women: ask your older female family members. Despite the conventionality of the subject (imagine, a woman growing older wanting a relationship, horror!), the author conveys this quite well. I felt that in the movie, it comes off considerably more stereotypical. Yet, read the book entitled The Bridal Wave and see if your 20's and 30's don't feel like the same.

Here's where the book splits—the screenwriters decided there were too many characters for the audience, or it was too confusing, or they'd offset the ordinary by inserting John Krasinski (the Office) by fusing two characters in the book into a singular entity. I applaud them for this since one of the book characters is too obnoxious and the other is too sweet—who wouldn't want to cast John Krasinski as the perfect blend of both making him (to the unread audience) the highlight of the film?
When I do spear fingers, the audience gets freaked out, but when I do jazz hands, everyone claps. So...what hand gestures should I do for the wedding toast? I want to be intimidating, yet relatable.
When Rachel and Dex realize that they have mutual feelings, the novel and the movie (mostly the novel) do an excellent job of portraying what the audience feels while the story unfolds. “No! You can't love each other! He's engaged, that's wrong.” Yet, as the story blooms like a flower, the audience, much like the characters evolve and feel less extreme. Even the side story in all its weirdness brings the film back to the main plot.

Ethan (John Krasinski) is Rachel's Jimminy Cricket, constantly asking her to define her feelings for Dex and her to give him an ultimatum between her and Darcy, a ballsy move Rachel is reticent to make on account of her friendship and her self-doubt. The movie creates a couple of twists where only one was before, and that in and of itself was amusing. Darcy (Kate Hudson—who looks more like her mother Goldie Hawn every year!) plays the perfect bridzilla despite the fact that she's reliving another role. In the film, you can't tell if she's just a bride on the path to the alter or THAT chick, since she was almost the same character in Bride Wars (a movie I recommend more highly as it exacerbates the love-hate relationship that women share). I can't help but love Ginnifer Goodwin as she is in Once Upon a Time, an excellent TV show on ABC. She even made me somewhat like Johnny Cash's ex-wife in the movie, Walk the Line, her first notable role.
Our polar expressions are hilarious!
Not to confuse you in case you only read my sarcastic photo comments, but I liked the book, and the film was okay. Were I just to watch the movie, I most likely would've written it off prior to the end, but I would have been content merely to read the book. If given the choice, read the book, but if you choose to watch the movie, I'd recommend the book first just so you don't end up loathing the characters.

Or you could just watch for Kate Hudson's quirky expressions

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Catching Fire and Mockingjay

What I can definitively say without spoiling anything is that Catching Fire, the second book of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, is much better than the first. I quickly found myself in rapt attention of what happened on the page where, by contrast, the first book had me mildly entertained but nothing more. For those of you considering reading the trilogy, I can now say that I do in fact recommend it. It was exciting to discover that my decision to read onward was worth my time in spades!

Now I will explain why I enjoyed it, so one must be aware of spoilers from this point onward.

Consequences and Changes

One of my problems with the first book was that it didn't go much into the ramifications of what happened throughout. There were a number of moments where the authority of the Capitol was subtly or overtly challenged (Katniss' clothing, shooting at the judges, the silent salute of the 12th district, the suicide pact). I was often frustrated because the apparent reaction was for the author to sweep it under the rug and not address the consequences of such provocations. People merely ooh'ed and aah'ed Katniss' flame/mockingjay motif. Her aggression was treated merely as a spirited approach to the games. The salute was an intense moment not mentioned or addressed again. And the suicide pact merely provoked a quick get-out-of-jail-free reaction that preemptively ended the games without much effort. I ended the first book lamenting how it seemed like things just happened without any lasting impact, lessening my interest in events as they played out.

But, in Catching Fire, it becomes abundantly clear early on that an enormous amount of activity was going on behind the scenes. Within just a few chapters, we see that people are being killed for dissenting, that full-blown riots are taking place in some of the districts, and that Katniss is now on a VERY short leash for her actions in the previous books. The tension is omnipresent and makes for gripping reading as we see exactly how things pan out, feeling very reminiscent of secret police crackdowns throughout history.

"Why the change?" I asked myself. I wondered why we had to wait until the second book to see anything truly momentous occurring. Then I realized that the answer is simple. It is the viewpoint's fault. By the author choosing a limited third person viewpoint focused only on Katniss, we couldn't possibly know what ramifications her actions had on anyone; she is shuttled about in a Capitol controlled environment and then thrust into a scenario (the Games) where she can't know anything of what is going on outside. As a writer myself, I thought about it and wondered if the series would have been better improved by giving a viewpoint to another character such as one of the judges/overseers, like Haymitch. Then it could have had more depth to it earlier in the story, instead of feeling initially shallow.

Hunger Games: Round Deux

One thing that I initially disliked about Catching Fire is that, midway through, we discover that Katniss has to fight in the games. Again. Now, maybe I'm not like most people, but I found the arena fights of the series to be the weakest part. The devil is in the details or, rather, the lack thereof. The author's sparse description of setting and side characters makes it hard to feel for Katniss. And the moments where she makes dumb decisions based on her terrible instinct of other people are countless.

But, despite my nitpicking, I thought that the games were handled much better this time around. Having the competitors be winners of old Games gave more weight and personality to each of them, making this round feel more intense. Another thing I especially liked was giving the dangers of the playing field a system of their own. In the first book, the environmental hazards seemed random and without rhyme or reason. By contrast, the concept of having the obstacles subject to time zones and the island's layout being akin to the structure of a clock was quite an interesting change.


All in all, I enjoyed Catching Fire much more than its predecessor and, because I actually LIKED the previous book, this is indeed an indicator that this book was great! The epic jaw-dropping moments are plentiful and the characters have much more depth to them. Though Katniss is still kind of a dumbass (her actions at the end of this book merely cement her idiot status for me), she actually has some amount of compassion this time around, suggesting that she's actually growing as a character. Haymitch becomes more awesome and Peeta, at times, made me wish that he were the protagonist and not Katniss. And that is a pretty amazing change considering how he was simply the dead weight, starry-eyed, baker's boy first time around!

But I did observe that, for me at least, the books tend to be at their strongest when addressing the struggle between the Capitol and the populace. The Hunger Games themselves, while occasionally exciting, just seem like sideshows, especially when you know that the real enemy is outside of them. Hopefully now that Katniss is a rebel, we won't need to see the Games again. The sequel will tell.


I did, in fact, read the third book, Mockingjay, after this one. However, I did not finish, having lost interest 3/4ths of the way through the book and then looking up how it ended. The reason was not because the book was horrible (in fact, it was initially engrossing and another improvement to the series) but because I lost interest in the characters, the events, and the villain. To speak plainly, Peeta is lost, Gale becomes bloodthirsty, and Katniss becomes an annoyingly emo waif who only gets worse as the book goes on. Considering how she was always a bit daft and irritating, the expansion of her more frustrating characteristics made me fed up with the book at large in comparatively short order.

This could have been rescued by an interesting villain, but President Snow has always been one-dimensionally evil with no redeeming characteristics. The overall power of the Capitol is overshadowed in a surprisingly fast amount of time and, for no good reason, the 'heroes' decide to mount an assassination mission on the President despite the complete lack of reason or need to do so. Beyond that, I read that a lot of people get killed at the end, mostly as a result of Katniss being ridiculous, leaving her an embittered old woman finally married to Peeta. Just 'cause.

Thus I suppose it came down to a lack of complexity, a lack of interest in what was going on, and marginal attachment to the characters that did it in for me. At least at the end. I'd recommend it up until right after they finish the mountain/Peacekeeper stronghold mission. After that it just felt like it went downhill from there.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Ghost Writer

On the surface of it, The Ghost Writer is your average thriller. A neophyte writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to ghost write the memoirs of an ex-British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan). For those not in the know, a relatively common facet of memoirs/autobiographies is for them to be “ghost written”, written by other people who imitate the writing style of the purported main author. This, while arguably dishonest, allows politicians or whomever to transcend their own crappy writing skills while still getting their thoughts down on paper. Anyways, Ewan McGregor quickly finds that there is more to this former prime minister than meets the eye and that there is some dark secret to him. The film is McGregor exploring the memoirs, the prime minister's life, and the activities of the former ghost writer who mysteriously died before finishing, all in search of the peculiarities of Pierce Brosnan's seedy past.

The Great

Despite this formula for what sounds like a quick mindless read of an airplane novel, The Ghost Writer kept my rapt attention. The setting was one prime reason. I don't know where it was filmed, but the movie spent most of its time with McGregor at the prime minister's distant home on the cloudy beaches of some winter coast. Through The Ghost Writer's cautious, exploratory pace, we are able to feel the isolation of living out there. The small town is perpetually sleepy. The people who live there are few and quiet. The only transportation out is by ferry, which forces you to slowly observe the weatherbeaten shores. All in all, it reminded me of coasts of the Pacific Northwest which, most of the time, are foggy and somber affairs. This thought provoking feel helped to subsume me into McGregor's meandering observation of the memoirs before him and the analytical quest to discover more about Brosnan's life.

Another thing that The Ghost Writer captured in spades is great acting. Ewan McGregor is inquisitive and intelligent while simultaneously foolhardy and naïve. Pierce Brosnan manages a peculiar blend of competent, smooth-talker and one-track minded simpleton. Olivia Williams (who plays the prime minister's wife) is a lost soul, cast adrift, and yet sharply intellectual and with hidden depths that you can't quite penetrate til the end. And, perhaps above all, I was in awe of Tom Wilkinson's cameo as the prime minister's old, obscure friend from college. His meeting with Ewan McGregor's character is intense; you can tell that he's polite and cordial, yet hiding something and, half the time, seems as if he's downright threatening. Perhaps, in the end, what I'm trying to point out is that there was something that seemed somewhat... off... about each of the characters, which kept my interest and made me pay especial interest in what was going on throughout the film.

The Ugly

Spoilers from this point onward.

However, what killed the film for me was its effort to deliver an overly blunt and ridiculous political statement. It becomes clear in short order that Pierce Brosnan's character, the ex-prime minister, is supposed to be an imitation of Tony Blair, the real life British PM who was in power during America's entrance into the war in Iraq. In The Ghost Writer, Brosnan's character faces war crime charges for his activities as prime minister, where he allied Britain to the whims of the United States for some war in the Middle East. The analogy is painfully obvious and, within the first half hour, you can tell that the writer of this screenplay wanted to rip Tony Blair a new one. This is obscenely clear by the twist near the end that reveals that Brosnan's meteoric rise to power was only made possible through the shady cooperation of the American CIA. Translation: he was America's toady all along, which explained his willingness to go along with the United States even into constitutionally murky wars and committing who knows what war crimes.

Once this was revealed, I immediately lost a great deal of respect for the movie. To paint a Tony Blair analogue as some secret long-time servant to the United States is patently ridiculous. I've always found conspiracy theories to be preposterous wastes of time and to find that the dark secret that McGregor pursued throughout the movie was such a conspiracy theory made me throw up my hands in exasperation. It was like watching a well-made interesting thriller that ends with telling you that the 9/11 attacks were engineered by the Bush government or that the Pearl Harbor bombing was secretly masterminded by Roosevelt. Perhaps this would be an exciting twist to someone who entertains such cynical and unlikely notions about the world and its history, but not me.


Overall, I enjoyed the movie, its acting, and its feel, but its end twist lost it a lot of points with me. Would I still recommend it...? Probably, but only barely. The ending has no catharsis, but the build up to the stupid twist was exciting and kept my intense interest. I suppose it depends on your tolerance of conspiracy theories and overly obvious analogies to real life events in the end. If you can handle it, then this movie is spectacular. If not, then it is a flawed gem: pretty to look at but ultimately unsatisfying.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wild Target

Written by Joe the Revelator

An anal-retentive hitman, a sultry kleptomaniac, and Ron Weasley walk into a bar... Actually, it's an upscale hotel, where a cheated art collector is waiting with his posse' of armed thugs, intent on killing the klepto over the sale of a duped Rembrandt.

Wild Target stars Bill Nighy as a quirky, idiosyncratic mamma's boy who lives a life so boring it makes your teeth hurt. His furniture is wrapped in plastic. His clothes are meticulous and neat. And he practices his French while he strolls around town, putting lead slugs in people's heads. "Half now, half later..." He says with a sigh, sitting down to tape severed bills back together; his fee for a successful hit.

His newest target, played by Emily Blunt, is a spunky klepto and con artist who exudes life on a manic level. Her wild lifestyle and unpredictable nature make her the most difficult contract he's ever tailed. And when he finally has her at the business end of a pistol, he finds that he can't pull the trigger. Usually, putting these two personalities together would feel gimmicky and forced, like Jacky Chan and Chris Tucker. But with the wry British humor it works without too much kitsch.

Adopt-A-Weasley Foundation

The duo is joined by Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fame, sporting a pencil-thin mustache and looking like a teenage runaway. His presence is never fully explained in detail, he simply joins the hitman and the klepto as if he was always part of the group. He's quiet, bumbling, and hapless, which isn't a huge departure from his prior Potter roles.

The real charm of this movie is during the "getting to know you" period, when the three are forced to share a suite at the hotel or while they're hiding out at mother's house in the country. The group has chemistry, but it's all the wrong kind. They're three oddballs whose view of the world just can't seem to click together, even with the threat of painful death just over the horizon.

Wild Target is a calm, easy-going movie with plenty of funny moments. Nothing hit me as particularly laugh-out-loud, but it was still a good relaxing flick, which I would recommend seeing. Check it out on Netflix.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Europa Universalis III

As a history nerd, I've always had a personal disdain for historical fiction. To me, it has never made sense to make up stories about history; if you know where to look, many of the true stories that you can find are as entertaining if not more so than that which we can find in our fictional works, movies, or novels. Thus, reading stories of historical fiction has always smacked of idiocy and laziness. Why, say, create an imaginary story of Jews daringly escaping Nazi clutches when there are plenty of stories of how that happened in real life?

But what if you had an opportunity to personally step into the shoes of leaders of the past and alter history as you see fit? I'm not talking about those ridiculous books on historical revisionism or “What if Germany won the War?” I'm talking about the premise of Europa Universalis III, a computer game where you can take control of any (and boy, do I mean, any) nation that existed from the years 1399 to 1821 AD. From the ancient Ming Chinese to Holland to the Indian Vijayanagaran empire, you can direct the military, economy, and social policies of any country however you please. You can alter history however you want, or try to follow it as best you can as it happened.
History nerd challenge: point out everything crazy about this picture
Does it Work?

This concept, for a history nerd, is truly mind-boggling. The thought that, if I wanted to, I could enter into a game, release the vassal states of every major European country, then sit back and watch the mayhem is quite an intellectual experiment. In one game, I decided to be a totally neutral Sweden, then turned the speed settings up to maximum, and watched the map and wars unfold. I was curious to see if the game would hold to what happened in history if left to its own devices. The answer? Not quite. The French gobbled up every principality near them, waded into central Europe, and was stopped only by the similarly grotesquely large Russian and Ottoman empires. But it was interesting to note that Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands stayed out of it, electing instead to fight proxy wars among the colonies of the Americas. Poor England, instead of acting as arbiter of a balance of power in Europe, suffered beach landing after beach landing from the French and, in short order, split into the comparatively powerless nations of Wales and Scotland.

A thoroughly interesting result, but not historically accurate. Does that take away from EU III's fun factor? Not in the slightest. In fact, I found this diversion from history (and the possibility of further diversions from history if I tried the same experiment again) quite enthralling.

A Story of Super Aggression

So, taken by an overpowering desire to subvert history as much as humanly possible, for my main game I decided to take Castile (translation: Spain) and do crazy shit with it. Colonize Mexico? Screw that. Invest in a Spanish armada? Pah! Instead of making Spain into the fabulously wealthy gold hoarding naval imperialists of the Renaissance era, I decided that the nation needed a new goal. So I thought to myself; wouldn't the Middle East look nice on my wall?

Thus began an epic campaign to conquer the entirety of North Africa, one step at a time. My first was Grenada, swiftly swallowed whole by my spastic cavalry. Second was Morocco, a tougher nut to crack. My first landing in Casablanca was quickly encircled and destroyed without a chance to retreat. But I kept to it. I assembled a new force within a year, my navy raiding Moroccan ports and overwhelming their own fleets all the while. Within five years, the entirety of Morocco was mine, no matter the casualties from hot desert weather and hostile terrain.

For my next trick, I decided that Algeria was next. But, to my surprise, the other Muslim nations spazzed out. A Catholic nation in Africa? No way they were gonna let that stand! To my surprise, I found myself in a war with the Tunis, the Mamluks (Egypt), Algeria, and the Ottoman Empire itself. Hordes of camels led by pissed off sultans came out of nowhere, and I quickly found myself outnumbered. For a time, I was pushed back, my armies in disarray, my fleets barely holding their own. But, through a number of bait and switch operations pulled off with help from my allies France and Portugal, I turned the tide and, after what must have been a ten year war, I found myself in control of Algeria, Tunis, Alexandria, and Jerusalem itself.
Pictured: what I assume would have happened if I hadn't beaten Granada
And then things got CRAZY

My mission complete, I stopped for a while to sit back, relax, and consolidate my holdings. I smashed revolts, converted broad swathes of land from Islam to Catholicism, and built temples and workshops where I could to cement stability and bolster the economy. I thought to myself, “What mischief can I cause in Europe?” I split my forces in two, leaving a few armies in North Africa just in case the natives got jittery, bringing the rest to Spain proper.

And then the Protestant Reformation hit. And, through some hateful coincidence, piracy became rampant in the Mediterranean.

For a minute there, I wondered if this was God's vengeance for all my bloody conquest. But then I remembered: I'm Catholic Spain. And I prepared for the worst.

And boy, did I get it. I ran out of missionaries within months. Huge Protestant rebel forces popped up all over the grid, led by charismatic and deadly generals more skilled than my own. The only thing that saved me was oodles of manpower, allowing me to direct the path of the rebel forces while bringing them down through attrition. Other nations weren't so lucky; I watched in horror as my ally Portugal was consumed entirely by the fires and sieges of rebel forces. I stationed armies nearby the borders, fearing that they would come my way next. Roving pirate groups made naval transport across my empire frustratingly difficult, prompting the reactionary construction of the biggest fleet in Europe to go try and patrol the entire Mediterranean by myself. At that point, I decided to stop the game and write this review. I admit, I was intimidated by my fleet's journey, seeing Europe essentially in flames and in perpetual revolution, the only islands of stability being my own lands and, of all places, a peculiarly strong Byzantine Empire (who, historically, should have been long dead in the year that I stopped playing: 1517 AD). It only occurred to me later that the Byzantines must have flourished as an unintended consequence of my war with the Muslim nations; with them distracted, they were prevented from their historical purpose of annihilating the Byzantines, allowing the Byzantines instead to flourish.
Spain's starting position in 1399 AD

Altogether my time playing Europa Universalis III was exciting and brilliant. I didn't even get around to mentioning how, during my conquests, I cornered numerous centers of trade, implemented a national bank, and sent colonizers into deep central Africa (where they were promptly murdered). The breadth of what you can do with this game is mind-boggling, and I look forward to spending more time with it (and potentially regaling you all further with my adventures here on the blog).

One huge caveat, though, is that the game has a rather sizable learning curve. I'm used to complicated strategy games, so it didn't hold me back for very long but, for the average 'gamer', this is kryptonite. You have to get used to functioning with an annual budget (where on a monthly basis you are operating at a deficit). You have to learn how to utilize the casus belli system (when it is okay to declare war on other nations without global disapproval or hits to your stability). And more. It isn't easy but, if you are patient, beyond the curve holds one of the most intricate and amazing game experiences I've ever encountered. History nerds... This one is for you.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Malice in Wonderland

Now this was an interesting find. Hidden in the deep, dark recesses of Netflix's Watch Instantly queue, Malice in Wonderland caught my eye only because of the literature to which it pays homage. I cast a glance over its synopsis and found it peculiar but not a complete turn off. A girl, named Alice, finds herself lost and on a trippy adventure in a modern, urban England city? Quite odd. So, despite eyebrow-raising skepticism over how well it would turn out, I decided to give it a shot.
Alice and the Cheshire Cat
This is Alice in Wonderland On Drugs

One thing is for certain: this portrayal of Alice takes some getting used to. Caustic Cockney Brits come out of nowhere, assailing Alice with the most bizarre and opaque language imaginable. Billboards come alive as if they're televisions. Cameras perch quirkily at odd angles. As the viewer, you are immersed in a sea of the nonsensical weird. Now, given that it is based on Alice in Wonderland, you'd kind of expect this to happen. But to this extent? It took some getting used to, and it wasn't until I was twenty or thirty minutes in that I got over it and began to truly enjoy the experience.

For that is what it is: an experience. It doesn't necessarily make sense most of the time but, hey, neither did Lewis Carroll's book. What Malice does brilliantly is provide a modern take on it through the lens of gritty London urban nightlife and, by doing so, creates an atmosphere of the odd that really immerses you in the world. Once you can overcome your inclination to appraise it all on a realistic and rational basis, then it becomes that much easier to enjoy. And you come to realize that, though insane, the world of Malice has a sort of unique feel and logic of its own that makes it so you aren't totally lost.
The Dodo
The Eclectic Menagerie

A big part of what makes Malice, and the original Alice, so engrossing is the medley of exotic characters that populate the landscape. The White Rabbit, the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the Duchess, the Dodo, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum... While they usually aren't referred to by name in Malice, they are definitely present and each has their own intense moments in the limelight. And, though they have elements to their characters which resonate and seem familiar, there are also twists to them that help make the portrayals seem fresh. For example, the White Rabbit has a much greater role in Malice than the book, having a borderline romantic connection with the attractive Alice (played by Maggie Grace).

Part of your ability to enjoy it, however, depends on your ability to welcome such changes. I personally did not like how the White Rabbit took such a central role in the story (to the point of almost serving as the main character). But, by contrast, I enjoyed the unique depictions of Tweedles Dee and Dum (two deep-voiced bouncers in this version), the Red “Queen” (a viciously charming mob boss King) and the Cheshire Cat (a trippy, teleporting, charismatic radio DJ). These representations are so fun to watch, though, that Alice's character suffers as a result. Though Maggie Grace is certainly beautiful and nails the innocence part without a problem, she just isn't all that interesting as a (*spoiler*) amnesiac, lost little rich girl. Consequently, the ending where she discovers her real mother (of whose existence we had no previous idea of earlier in the film) is where it loses steam, slapping the audience with a dose of reality and conventional storytelling when everything previous has been a glorious smorgasbord of chaos and unpredictability.
The White Rabbit

Altogether I really enjoyed Malice in Wonderland. It was an incredibly unusual modern take on Alice that, in reading the plot synopsis ahead of time, I did not expect to work. And yet for the most part it did with aplomb. Though Alice herself was kinda 'meh', the potpourri of quirky side characters carries Malice without a problem.

The only thing I need to point out is that this version of Alice is definitely adult only. Hookers, constant drug use, threats of rape... There is a reason it is called Malice, you know. But it is hard for me to imagine it any other way; the deep urban, modern take would've felt watered down and would've lacked resonance without such a genuine approach to it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Dies the Fire

Written by Joe the Revelator

I prefer to describe the premise of this book the way the characters therein hypothesized "The Change". Alien space bats, using a bright worldwide flash, took away humanity's toys, be they electronic, gas. or chemically powered. Of course the characters are being ironic when they say this, but no better explanation is provided for the entirety of the story. So alien space bats it is...

Guns won't fire anymore. Gunpowder itself burns too slowly to produce a charge. And steam engines don't work, regardless of how hot the boiler. Electronics are dead too. It's as if someone or something selectively changed the laws of physics to turn the whole world into a Renaissance fair and live-action-roleplay event. Devout Wicca, Tolkien nuts, and medieval reenactors thrive in the new wasteland. Because when the lights go out, the nerds still have their swords and armor.

Far Fetched

If you can get over how unbelievable the premise of Dies the Fire sounds, it's actually a very engrossing story. The author S.M. Stirling doesn't dwell on the improbable physics of his new world (how could he?) Which leaves him free to develop characters and build new societies and miniature civilizations. Throughout the book different types of leaders revert back to various stages of culture. The ex-military survivalist from Idaho leads a mongol horde, using scrap metal swords and hunting bows. The Wicca singer starts a remote Celtic farming community in the hills of the Willamette Valley.

The real peril in Dies the Fire isn't the technology-crippling bright-flash Change itself, but the lack of agriculture, communication, and transportation. With no way to ferry food into the major cities, namely Portland and Salem since this is based in the Pacific Northwest, the city folk are left to fend for themselves. Cannibalism is rampant. Death squads roam the burnt-out rural wastes. And a history professor turned super-villain has staked his claim on the Portland City Public Library, turning it into his fortress while he gathers inner-city gangs to mold into his army of dread knights.

The warriors of the new world don't strictly limit themselves to old ways, either. Roving factions are quick to use bicycles as their steeds. Pickups are hollowed out for horse-drawn wagons. Steel presses, punches, and sheet metal are used to create scale armor. Taken out of context this book could be used as a guide to turn your house into a garrison.

Stirling's Map

Blitzkrieg on Schwinns

Maybe it's the nature of the genre, but I can't help but compare this to the Fallout games, or other apocalypse novels like The Postman, I Am Legend, The Last Man, Z for Zachariah, The Road, The Stand, Alas Babylon... although the complete lack of guns is fairly new to post-apocolyptia. (Postman had guns, although bullets were exceedingly rare) One would think we've almost exhausted the possibilities for wasteland stories; killing raiders and cannibals with an arsenal MacGyver would be proud of. But Stirling successfully resurrects the templates of old warring societies to create knights in Denim and sneakers, without a single revolver in sight. The result is intriguing.

I would highly recommend this book. Unless you're one of those nitpicky, mincing types who can't overlook a little thing like warping the laws of physics. Is a fantasy about dragons and magic any more believable? Or vampire novels? Or accounts of the Bush presidency?