Now and then I review films (I have since 1994), and I thought I'd share a recent one: The new slasher film Happy Death Day follows a young woman named Tree at a Louisiana university who wakes up in a dorm room with her phone blaring “Happy Birthday” (yes, it’s her birthday) and goes about her disheveled but otherwise ordinary day sniping with nasty sorority sisters and whatnot until that evening when she’s menaced (and eventually killed) by a creeper in a giant baby mask (it’s the school mascot, apparently). Terrifying enough, but then she wakes up the next morning—or perhaps the same morning—with a sense of relief that it was all a dream. But the relief turns to déjà vu as the day is repeated, with minor variations, until the killing happens again. Tree remembers what happened the previous day, of course (otherwise there would be no film), though none of the other characters do. At some point, with the help of her friend Carter, she somehow, apparently, divines the “rules” of the loop she’s in and tries to subvert them in order to prevent her death and catch her killer. Happy Death Day is kind of like the opposite of Happy Birthday—though technically it would be Happy Birth Day, which no one says, since “birthday” is one word—and, well, I guess the real opposite would actually be something like Sad Death Night, but anyway, yeah, I’m already putting more thought into the title than co-writer/director Christopher Landon did with the plot. Equal parts Mean Girls, Groundhog Day, and Scream, Happy Death Day has some ideas for directions the script wants to go, but it doesn’t really explore them. At one point the message seems to be that Tree is maybe reliving the day so that she can see what a bitch she is and become a better person; that theme propels a few scenes until it’s abruptly abandoned and the focus turns to trying to identify her killer (as she, for unexplained reasons, comes to believe that it’s the key to getting out of this recurring time loop). Because the film’s premise isn’t anchored in any discernible rules (other than what the characters intuit—and really we as an audience should have more information than they do), it’s hard to get too involved in the nonsensical plot. For a film whose gimmick relies on repeating key scenes, the filmmakers are resourceful (if not wholly successful) at finding ways of making the repetition less annoying. For example they use different lenses, depths of focus, and so on, to show the same scenes in slight different ways. What Happy Death Day does have going for it is a bit of fun and a talented lead actress, Jessica Rothe, who glides gracefully between camp and pathos. The twist at the end is the kind that makes sense if you think about it for a moment—but only a moment, because as that turns into two or three moments you realize that it doesn’t actually make any sense at all, and that (unlike, for example, Memento or The Usual Suspects) the joke is on you for wasting energy devoting neurons to what is essentially a shaggy dog story. If this is the kind of movie that annoys you (as it often does me), caveat emptor. Watching Happy Death Day I experienced a sort of film critic’s whiplash; parts of the movie were eye-rollingly bad, but a few minutes later were surprisingly good. Just as I thought it was stuck in a one-star gear, it found its groove and was heading right for three stars (but not four). It’s funny, but not really funny enough to be a successful comedy; it’s scary, in a few spots, but also not scary enough to be a good horror film. I guess it’s best described as diverting or amusing, a passable if uninspired way to spend an hour and a half of your life. Overall I have to give Happy Death Day a tepid recommendation—as long as you know what you’re in for. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Genies (or jinn, as they are better known in the Arabic world) are supernatural beings with roots in ancient Mesopotamian legends. Jinn, however, are not the lamp-dwelling, wish-granting benevolent servants that Westerners know from popular culture. The image that most Americans probably have of genies comes from the 1960s sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie" or the animated big blue Robin Williams-voiced wiseacre in Disney's "Aladdin." More recently, in the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel "American Gods," audiences have come to know a cab-driving jinn who switches identities with an Omani salesman named Salim. (Salim had recognized the jinn from a story told to him by his grandmother). Gaiman's magical, shape-shifting jinn is fictional, but belief in genies is widespread. In "Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar" (Counterpoint Books, 2011), researcher Robert Lebling noted that "Jinn are taken seriously and regarded as real, tangible beings by a large segment of the world's population.... They often appear humanoid or even human but possess amazing powers we lack. They can change their shapes, can fly through the air, and even can render themselves invisible." (Lebling is also the creator of a Facebook page titled The Jinn Group, where members share jinn stories and lore.) You can read the rest of my LiveScience.com article HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
A nice correction/acknowledgement from Fortean Times magazine for having quoted from my Bad Clowns book without attribution. Classy, and appreciated!
With all the recent discussion of shootings and how the news media have covered it, I thought I'd revisit a blog I wrote in 2014 about how people often misuse (and misunderstand) the phrase "the media." As a longtime media and science literacy educator (as well as author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I regularly see "the media" blamed (and rarely praised) for any number of ills, some justified but many not. The phrase "the media" appears regularly and continually in public discourse-often as the subject of blame or derision: "the media" is said to incite violence, to inflame racial hatred, to manipulate consumers through advertising, and so on. "The media" is said to push an impossible beauty ideal on American women leading to an epidemic of eating disorders; violence in entertainment media such as video games is blamed for real-life violence, and so on. This is nothing new; blaming "the media" is an old tradition-in fact when Jack the Ripper was active in 1880s London, violence in the play "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was blamed for inspiring the serial murders. You can read my CFI blog HERE.
Looks like my new book "Bad Clowns" even made it to the Wikipedia page on clowns. Very cool! If you haven't read it yet, there's still a few copies left at your local independent bookstore, or at Amazon.com! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
The idea that people can levitate under certain circumstances has been discussed for centuries despite a noticeable lack of people flying around. I interviewed Michael Grosso, the author of a new book on the topic, for my new blog... Check it out HERE! I was recently sent a review copy of a new book titled The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation. The accompanying press release included the following summary: "St. Joseph of Copertino [1603-1663] began having mystical visions at the age of seven, but it was not until he began practicing his faith as a Franciscan priest that he realized the full potential of his mind's power over his body-he was able to levitate. Throughout his priesthood St. Joseph became famous for frequent levitations that were observed on hundreds of occasions and by thousands of witnesses, including many skeptics. Michael Grosso delves into the biography of the saint to explore the many strange phenomena that surrounded his life and develops potential physical explanations for some of the most astounding manifestations of his religious ecstasy. Grosso draws upon contemporary explorations into cognition, the relationship between the human mind and body, and the scientifically recorded effects of meditation and other transcendent practices to reveal the implications of St. Joseph's experiences and abilities."... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
My book Mysterious New Mexico that was featured on the front page of Wikipedia for 12 hours last week received 1,950 page views. Most of those views were not from the skeptic community, so great outreach! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
My brilliant zoologist friend Darren Naish wrote a retrospective piece for Scientific American about various interesting zoology-related news stories from last year--including a "monster mystery" I played a role in revealing. It's a fun read, check it out, you can find it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
My last book "Mysterious New Mexico" is a finalist for the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
M. Night Shyamalan's new film The Visit has a fairy tale feel to it as Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent off to visit their estranged maternal grandparents in a big, isolated house while their single mother takes a much-needed weeklong cruise... Read my whole review HERE.
I recently read Candice Miller's book The River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt's 1914 exploration of an unknown river in the Brazilian Amazon. It's a fascinating story of adventure, misadventure, murder, and more. In the book I also found an excellent real-life example of one of my favorite logical fallacies:post hoc ergo propter hoc, also called faulty causation. Read more HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
The Gift starts, as many films do, with the story of young married couple Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) who move into a new neighborhood. They recently came from Chicago to Los Angeles, lured by the promise of a job promotion for him and some down time for her following a battle with depression... You can read the whole review in my CFI blog HERE.
The Attorneys General of several states recently announced a crackdown on unsafe herbal supplements.... you can read more HERE.
ISIS terrorists have apparently beheaded at least one of their two Japanese hostages taken weeks ago. Last year I wrote an article about why terror groups cut their victims' heads off. Gruesome but interesting, you can read it HERE.
The terrorist group ISIS threatened to kill two Japanese citizens unless their government pays a huge ransom. They did not, and at least one was beheaded. Last year I wrote a piece for Discovery News about the politics of paying for hostages... you can read it HERE.
Censorship and free speech: Was Sony going to shelve The Interview last month because of terror threats? Most people think so. But a closer look suggests that might not be true; you can read it HERE.
My new CFI blog on the bizarre, misogynistic mess that is Disney's "Into the Woods." You can read it HERE.
The first and only book on the film Falling Down, by Prof. Jude Davies of the University of Winchester, quotes my interview with the screenwriter and refers to my "very useful fan site." You can find the book HERE.
In my many years of writing articles and occasionally fact-checking news media reports (see, for example, much of my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I'm continually baffled by the defensive stance that people often take when you fact-check their statistics. People often assume that if you're checking their facts that you must be against them or what they're trying to do. HERE is a follow-up about the film Miss Representation...
Encouraging new study finds that weight discrimination is rare, not common: Most people report experiencing no harassment, insults, or boorish behavior due to their weight, and only 5% report being discriminated against because of their body size. You can read my piece on it HERE.
For those who missed it recently: My blog on why blaming "the media" is not only vague writing and lazy thinking, but also ineffective... you can read it HERE. There has been much discussion about the media in recent weeks, in terms of what the media is showing, not showing, and why....
Did you know that I created the best fan web site for the film Falling Down? It's true--and you can find it HERE, including photos, film analysis, trivia, and much more.
Sharon Hill of Doubtful News reviews my latest book (with Robert Bartholomew), The Martians Have Landed, for eSkeptic! You can read it HERE.
I recently wrote several pieces about the long-awaited "Bigfoot DNA" study; one discussing the analysis, on NBC News, can be read HERE.
I was recently interviewed about monsters and cryptozoology by a Spanish newspaper... I can read it, but I can't translate the whole thing. The title is, "Where Monsters Dwell"! If you habla the espanol, you can read it HERE!
Tomorrow I will launch my awesome new Web site, a tribute to one of my favorite films, Falling Down. The movie was filmed 20 years ago, and was released in 1993. The movie stars Michael Douglas as a laid-off defense worker in Los Angeles: "The adventures of an ordinary man at war with the everyday world," as the poster says. The film takes place on June 12 (1991), so in honor of that I'm launching the site. Check it out at www.FallingDownFilm.com; I hope you like it.
The Journal of Folklore Research, a peer-reviewed publication of the Folklore Institute at Indiana University, was established in 1961. It is dedicated to promoting international scholarly dialogue about the world's traditional creative and expressive forms. A review of my recent book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore appeared in the Journal. Below is an excerpt of the review, by Virginia S. Fugarino of Newfoundland’s Memorial University: Benjamin Radford’s work, Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore, sets out to present an in-depth analysis of the elusive “goat sucker” in order to determine the plausibility of its existence. To date, few books have been dedicated to taking a serious look at this creature, and Radford puts forth a well-researched and approachable study that seeks to fill this gap. Radford’s research spans five years and includes a variety of approaches, such as an analysis of news media surrounding chupacabra reports, a survey of popular culture items either influenced by or potentially influencing chupacabra stories, discussions of interview material, and Radford’s own travels to Nicaragua to search for the creature. The book is split into four parts that explore different aspects of his study. Part I provides a concise historical overview of chupacabra reports, ranging from Puerto Rico (the location of the original report) to Mexico, Chile, Brazil, and the United States. This section also includes some of the theories about the creature’s origins, ranging from the belief that the chupacabra is the result of governmental conspiracies to the belief that chupacabras are simply familiar predators. The second chapter of Part II deals with the variety of ways the chupacabra has made its way into popular culture. Radford begins with an analysis of tabloid and news media coverage of the creature, coverage that aided in the spread of chupacabra stories. He also discusses how the chupacabra has surfaced in other popular media, including film, literature, and exhibitions at fairs and museums. This chapter is particularly interesting in that it provides an array of examples of how the chupacabra, a relatively recent monster, has become internationally known. Overall, Radford’s book is an engaging study. Although at times he takes a dismissive tone toward individuals who believe in the creature, his prose is clear and well presented. The use of pictures and diagrams throughout the book enriches the discussion and helps to clarify some of his points, especially when he is examining the attacks on the livestock. This book offers a serious study of the phenomenon of the chupacabra, and it will be interesting to see if other researchers follow in his path. Researchers interested in issues of belief may find avenues of study to follow from Radford's research. Radford states near the close of his book: “There is nothing left to explain, no place left for any mystery to hide. The beast is gone—in fact never was—but the myth will continue” (177). One wonders whether believers may attempt to counter his claims. It's nice to see a skeptical, investigative book being seen outside of skeptic circles. The chupa really is one of the highest profile "mysteries" of the past 15 years, and I hope the public sees that if someone can work hard to solve this mystery, then maybe all the other "unexplained" mysteries are also solvable with science and critical thinking.
Writer Nate Riddle's new book, Lone Star Spooks: Searching for Ghosts in Texas, has a significant chapter on skepticism in ghost investigations, and he quotes an interview I did with him at length. I can't vouch for the skeptical content of the rest of the book, but overall it looks pretty good. Riddle deserves a lot of credit for getting a skeptical point of view in the book; 99% of authors of ghost books completely ignore the skeptics' information and arguments. More information on the book is available at his Web site.
When it comes to folklore, Mexico's mythical creatures and personages are generally ancient in origin and essentially benign in nature...This March, paranormal investigator Benjamin Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and columnist for Discovery News pronounced the mystery solved..... Read the full piece here.
Tangled tells a re-envisioned version of Rapunzel, in which a magical plant that falls from the sky is found and coveted by a woman who uses its powers to stay perpetually young. However one day in a nearby kingdom, the pregnant queen is having a difficult birth, and the royal guards are sent to find the miracle plant. They do, and take the magic to the queen, who uses it to give birth to a cute baby princess named Rapunzel. The peasant woman who had previously used the magic is not happy about this, and somehow figures out that the infant princess’s hair can be used to keep her young. She then steals Rapunzel and places her in a tower all alone and adopts her as her own, visiting her periodically to rejuvenate. Fast-forward nearly two decades. Rapunzel, on the verge of her eighteenth birthday, trailing a mile of golden locks, and apparently showing no signs of psychological trauma from having spent all of her life alone and imprisoned, remains unaware that she is in fact a stolen princess from a nearby kingdom. She pines away in boredom and loneliness—until a handsome rogue thief appears in her tower and, after a series of misadventures, captures her heart. He agrees to take her to the kingdom if she will return a crown he’s stolen and let him get away. The film is in 3D, as is all the rage these days, and the scenes are nice to look at. The scenes really show depth, though I wish the plot had as much depth. It’s kind of a non-sensical story, with strange plot holes galore. I guess I should know better than to challenge logic in fairy tales, but the movie never explains how Rapunzel realizes that she’s the missing princess (which is after all key to the whole story). Furthermore, it’s not clear why the queen’s life is any more valuable than the peasant woman’s. After all, even though Rapunzel’s “mother” is clearly evil and manipulated Rapunzel for her own purposes, the queen had no more right to use the magic for herself than she did. And later when Rapunzel enters the kingdom—knowing that she has the magical ability to cure illness and injury, you might think that this kind-hearted soul might head directly to the hospital to heal the sick and injured. Instead she keeps the power a secret; perhaps she should take a lesson from Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility. Ah, the selective morality of fairy tales! I was looking forward to Tangled. Fractured fairly tales are of course nothing new; they’ve been around since at least the 1960s (in the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show). But there’s little new in this mediocre fairy tale retelling. The songs—about a dozen in all—are annoying and forgettable, though kids might like them. Tangled is passable entertainment for undemanding teens and pre-teens, though adults may find it lacking. Two Stars Stars: Mandy Moore and Zachary Levy Director: Nathan Greno and Byron Howard Plugs: None
127 Hours is how long hiker Aron Ralston spent trapped in a Utah canyon in 2003 before he cut off his arm to get free and hike to safety. It’s a true story, adapted for film by Danny Boyle (best known for Slumdog Millionaire) and starring James Franco as Ralston. This film—indeed, any film—is only as good as its source material, and that’s where the limitations of 127 Hours become apparent. If you’re going to stick to the true story, then there’s only so much you can do with the plot: Guy goes hiking, gets his hand stuck, cuts it off, and lives to tell the tale. You can toss in some hallucinations to vary the scenes a bit, but ultimately the story is what it is. We can’t fault the screenwriters (director Boyle and Simon Beaufoy) for that, nor, I suppose, even Ralston, who fleshed out his experience into a 354-page book. The scenes of him hiking in the desert before his accident are not terribly interesting, and nor are the scenes after he frees himself. This leaves the middle third as the meat of the film, after he’s got his hand stuck and after he steels himself enough to hack it off. Ralston spends the time trying to make the best of his situation, trying to survive, and hallucinating. Ralston survived partly due to his wits and bravery, but Ralston is no hero; he’s an arrogant idiot who not only hiked alone but didn’t bother to tell anyone where he was going, thus preventing a search. Sure, cutting off your own arm takes more balls than most people have, but it’s also not as if he had much of a choice: It was do-or-die, and Ralston decided to do. It was the only decision he could make after having made a series of bad decisions. Three Stars Stars: James Franco and Amber Tamblyn Director: Danny Boyle Plugs: Coca-Cola products
The new film True Grit, like the 1969 Western starring John Wayne, tells the story of a precious and precocious 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who hires crusty, one-eyed lawman Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her hunt down Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. They are soon joined by a Texas Ranger named LeBeauf (Matt Damon), who is already on Chaney’s trail. Much of the dialogue came from the novel by Charles Portis—an unfortunate screenwriting decision by the writer/directors. The Coen brothers can write good dialogue; no one who has seen No Country For Old Men can deny that. But they are a little too in love with their (and Portis’s) words, much as Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith—bless their awesome indie hearts—often sacrifice credibility for literal showmanship. Throughout the film, Mattie’s dialogue is jarringly out of character. Could a fourteen-year-old girl speak the way Mattie does? Certainly, it’s possible. By the same token, the Black adolescent stableboy she takes a horse from could possibly speak in Shakespearean Early Modern English, as could the clerk at your local gas station. (For the record, the film Juno annoyed me for much the same reason.) Those who saw the HBO series Deadwood heard very different (and, experts stated, much more realistic) dialogue from around the same milieu. The plot didn’t hold much sway for me either. I never thought the original True Grit was that great, and this remake didn’t improve the plot. It’s all tired retread: a gruff loner on a mission is befriended by a determined, sweet-tempered younger sidekick who eventually worms his or her way into our hearts. Yep, it’s Shrek and a billion other films. Just because True Grit is packed to the gills with clichés doesn’t make it a bad film. Lots of fine films contain threadbare clichés, but the best ones rise above them. True Grit relies heavily on Bridges’ prodigious talent, but even that isn’t enough to save the film from mediocrity. Just as Mattie’s dialogue rings false, much of the plot does as well. Before Mattie selects Cogburn, she is offered her choice of three trackers to help find her father’s killer, whose death she keeps reminding us motivates her. Mattie is depicted and played as sharp and savvy, yet she inexplicably does not choose the man suggested as the best tracker. This is of course necessary to launch the plot, but it does raise the puzzling question of why, if finding her father’s killer is her life’s burning mission, she doesn’t choose the best person for the job. One wonders, if she and Cogburn hadn’t found him at the end of the film, if she would have regretted not hiring the best tracker. There’s various other plot silliness, such as both Cogburn and LeBeauf stating that they think Chaney is long gone and will never be found, yet conveniently (and coincidentally) Mattie stumbles across him the very next morning at a stream only a few yards from their camp. This is a world in where the bad guys are knocked unconscious from the slightest blow (or killed by a single shot), while the heroes shoot straight and feel fine despite mortal bullet wounds. Technically, True Grit is a fine Western. The cinematography is excellent, the scenery drips with desolation and death, the direction is assured, and the period detail is excellent. The acting by Bridges and the rest is uniformly excellent, and Steinfeld’s would be great if she wasn’t hampered by a script that has her saying lines that would better fit a middle-aged college professor. Three Stars Stars: Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld Director: Ethan and Joel Coen Plugs: None
The Fighter tells the true-life story of welterweight boxer Micky Ward and his rise to fame from hardscrabble roots. As a general rule, I rarely like sports movies. Though there are many good ones, they usually fall into the same boring, formulaic plots. The Fighter gets around this problem by barely being a sports movie at all; in fact it has surprisingly few boxing scenes for a film about a boxer. For as much ready-made drama as there is to be found inside the ring, director David Russell and the screenwriters recognize that Ward’s real dramas occurred in his everyday life. It is precisely because The Fighter focuses on Ward’s family that the characters are fleshed out, and the actors are allowed to do their stuff. The titular character refers to Micky Ward, but in reality everyone in the film is fighting for something. Micky’s half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale), himself a former boxer whose claim to fame is knocking Sugar Ray Leonard to the mat (Leonard may have tripped), dreams of a comeback but his life has been derailed by crack cocaine addiction. Micky needs Dicky to train him, but it’s not going well. That changes when Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a scrappy barmaid who recognizes that his family’s drugs and dysfunction are keeping Micky from developing his true ability. Micky wants to remain loyal to Dicky and his family, but knows that his career is doomed if they manage him. The three leads are excellent, and there’s not a false note in the bunch. Mark Wahlberg previously worked with director Russell on the 1999 war comedy-drama Three Kings, and gives a surprisingly understated performance as Ward. Christian Bale is brilliant as Micky’s wrangly, twitchy, drug-addicted half-brother Dicky, the one-time pride of blue-collar Lowell, Massachusetts. Though I rarely watch boxing, Micky Ward was one of the few boxers I remember, and he was a fascinating athlete to watch. He was perhaps best known for his devastating body blows. Ward salvaged more than a few of his losing fights with a punch to his opponent’s kidney, dropping the other boxer like a sack of potatoes. The Fighter, like Million Dollar Baby, has some unavoidable sports movie clichés but sidesteps many others. It’s much more than a boxing movie; it’s about family, potential squandered by drugs, and redemption.
Tracking the Chupacabra author Benjamin Radford is interviewed by KRQE-TV's investigative reporter Larry Barker about his book. Video at: