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…..
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.
Stars: Mandy Moore and Zachary Levy
Director: Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
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.
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.
Stars: Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld
Director: Ethan and Joel Coen
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: