Book Review: BRIEF CASES (The Dresden Files)

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brief cases dresden filesJim Butcher
ACE
2018

It’s been three years since the last book in the Dresden Files series was released. Three long years without our favorite Chicago-based wizard detective to experience exciting supernatural wackiness vicariously through. Fortunately, there’s been a recent publication of another short story collection by Jim Butcher, something that will tide me over until the next book in the series comes out. Loves me some Dresden Files.

Anyway, yeah, Brief Cases was recently released through ACE Books, collecting several short stories that Butcher wrote for other publications, plus one that was only released on this collection, if I have my information correct. Let’s dive in and see what we got, shall we?

  • “A Fistful Of Warlocks”

We take a trip back to the Wild West of the 1800s, where the warden Anastasia Luccio rides into the town of Dodge City, hot on the heels of a warlock, and teams up with a deputy sherif named Wyatt Erp to take on the warlock’s posse and their zombie horde.

  • “B Is For Bigfoot”

Harry Dresden takes a case from a Bigfoot named Strength of a River in His Shoulders (River Shoulders for short) to check up on his son, who goes to school in Chicago. The kid might be being picked on by bullies; only, it turns out to be more than that.

  • “AAAA Wizardry”

Dresden regales a class of young wardens in training with a tale of when he took on a case involving a boogeyman to illustrate the five “A”s of wizardly investigation.

  • “I Was A Teenage Bigfoot”

Once again, Dresden takes a case from River Shoulders, this time to check up on his son — who is now a teenager and attending a private school — and find out why he’s sick. On account of, the son of Bigfoot shouldn’t be getting sick, let alone lainĀ out in the infirmary. It might be black magic afoot…but you’d never guess for what ends.

  • “Curses”

Dresden is hired to try and get a curse put on Wrigley Field in 1945 lifted so the Cubs can actually win for once, darn it. This takes him deep in the realm of the Tylwyth Teg, to speak to the caster of the curse. Who knew the creatures of folklore were big baseball fans?

  • “Even Hand”

A story told from the point of view of John Marcone, the Chicago crime lord that’s a perpetual thorn in Dresden’s side. Here, Marcone is best upon by a rather nasty member of the Fomor — Cantrev Lord Mag — who’s there to collect a baby that was stolen by the White Court’s human servant Justine. Things go boom.

  • “Bigfoot On Campus”

One last case from River Shoulders, and this time he wants Dresden to check in on his now college-age son due to a premonition of danger. Which may hold some water, as Dresden discovers that the kid is dating the daughter of a White Court vampire.

  • “Bombshells

Told from Molly Carpenter’s point of view, from her post-wizard apprentice days, due to Dresden still being considered dead at this point; she takes a mission to infiltrate a Swartves stronghold to rescue Dresden’s half-brother Thomas Raith; only, she discovers things aren’t as cut and dried as they seem. To be fair, they never are.

  • “Cold Case”

Another one from Molly Carpenter’s point of view, this time as the newly-minted Lady of the Winter Court. She is charged with collecting a long-overdue tribute from the Miksani. After arriving at the small Alaskan seaport, she discovers the reason why they’ve been so tardy, and teams up with the young Warden Ramirez to get things back in order.

  • “Jury Duty”

Harry Dresden is summoned to jury duty in the case of a former bodyguard for a crime boss accused of the murder of a man one year prior. It seems fairly cut and dried only Dresden has that inkling that something’s not quite right. So he goes investigating, along with one of his werewolf friends. Wackiness ensues.

  • “Day One”

A story told from the perspective of everyone’s favorite polka-loving, Sword of Faith-wielding mortician, Waldo Butters; this one concerns Butters’ first case as a newly-minted Knight of the Cross, which involves a rogue baku that’s feeding off the fear of the children in a hospital ward.

  • “Zoo Day”

The final story in this collection has Dresden taking his ten-year-old daughter Maggie and his dog (and current guardian of Maggie) Mouse on a daddy/daughter/doggie day at the zoo to look at some animals. This one takes turns with the point of views, starting with Dresden, who encounters a young warlock; Maggie, where she faces off with some nasty haunts that are possessing other kids at the zoo; and finally Mouse, where he meets a dark figure from his past. Also, there’s french fries.

Of the stories in this collection, I believe I enjoyed “A Fistful Of Warlocks”, the three involving Bigfoot and his half-human, half-bigfoot son (especially the “Bigfoot On Campus”, as things really go boom there), and “Zoo Day”, as we not only get a good story involving Dresden trying to be something he’s not accustomed to — being a father — but also the three points of view, one being the ironically named Mouse. That was great, there.

Mind you, all the rest of the stories contained are all top-notch, containing the quality type of action, mystery and humor that comes with this series, only contained in easily digestible bite-sized pieces. I’m afraid I went through my Kindle edition of this a bit too fast, as per usual. It was that kind of engrossing. Recommended.

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Movie Review: The DEVIL’S HAND

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devil's handRoadside Attractions
2014
PG-13

The Devil’s Hand is a one of the movies that was available for streaming on my Prime account on Amazon (for all the plugs I do for them, I should really look into getting some kind of monetary kickback or something), with a cover that looked straight out of one of those small rural-based horror flicks of the 1980s. Eh, it looked like a nifty way to kill 90 minutes or so on a Saturday morning.

Doing a bit of research on this movie, it seems that this movie went through several working names, including Where The Devil Hides, The Devil’s Rapture and The Occult. Nothing really too shocking, really. On the Staci Layne Wilson review of this movie on Dread Central, she mentions that, having been on-set when it was being filmed, what she expected based on interviews with the cast and director wasn’t what she got when she watched the movie. Not necessarily a bad thing, but still. I bring this up, because the description of The Devil’s Hand on the Amazon Prime site describes it as “Five young Amish girls accused of being ‘Satan’s children’ must fight for their lives when their devout community elders insist they be ‘cleansed’ before turning 18.” After watching The Devil’s Hand, I find that to be not quite accurate.

So, we begin on a dark night on June 6th, when six girls are being born to six mothers (this sounds like the beginning of a nursery rhyme). Since this community has a prophecy that states that on the sixth day of the sixth month, six girls will be born, and on the day of their 18th birthday, one of them will become the Devil’s Hand. Because of this prophecy and incredible coincidence (*cough*), this prompts the town’s head Elder Beacon (Colm Meaney! Star Trek’s Miles O’Brian to my fellow geeks out there) to come over and try to kill the newborns. The father of one of the babies takes umbrage with this, and stops the Elder from his grizzly purpose, but not able to stop one of the mothers from smothering her own baby out of fear of the prophecy.

Infanticide. Always a great way to kick off any movie. [/sarcasm]

Anyway, fast forward a few years, and the remaining five girls are on the very cusp of their 18th birthdays, and during a group dip in the nearby lake, a couple of towny boys decide it would be hilarious to go skinny dipping with them. This inspires the girls and their chaperone to pack up and head back to their respective homes. Turns out, all the girls have been deliberately left ignorant of the whole prophecy bit, but are being watched closely by the Elders for any evil shenanigans and the like. One by one, however, the girls are being systematically murdered by a mysterious cloaked knife-weilding individual. Of course, this makes the townsfolk begin to get paranoid, looking upon the remaining girls with suspicion. It also doesn’t help that one of the girls seems to have epilepsy, with her episodes being chalked up to devil fits or something like that. This also causes the “good” Elder Beacon to turn up the fire and brimstone…and use that as an excuse to perve on the girls. One of the girls gets the full shunning and ejected from the community (which makes one wonder…how is New Bethlehem — the name of the community — supposed to be a “beacon of light” to the outside world, as one of the elders mentioned, if they’re shunning it completely? It makes no sense, but more on that later), which leads to the remaining two girls to go after her and, with the help of one of the towny boys who seems to have fallen smitten with the girl with epilepsy, find sanctuary at the house of another former New Bethlehem resident who was shunned for allegedly making a pact with Satan…who happens to be the biological mother of the epileptic girl who thought her mother died when she was an infant. The reunion is short lived, however, as Elder Beacon comes calling to retrieve the girls, who manage to escape back to New Bethlehem under cover of Day For Night filter, they’re pursued by the townsfolk and that hooded knife-weilder, when everything comes to a head when it turns out [SPOILERS] it was the mother of the epileptic girl that was the knife-weilding killer, leveling the field for her daughter to become the Devil’s Hand. Which she totally does at midnight of her 18th birthday, which leads to her killing everyone and burning down New Bethlehem.

My 18th birthday involved a pizza buffet and a trip to one of the malls in Omaha. Anyway…

The Devil’s Hand is mediocre at best. It doesn’t seem fully developed as far as what kind of movie it wanted to be. It starts off as a slasher, but then switches into a kind of CW style drama that’s set with…well, I’m certain the label “Amish” is not the word to use. The style and look seem more in keeping with Puritanism, and John Calvin’s experiment with a community of holiness with Geneva, especially with the reference to New Bethlehem being a beacon of light to the world. Also, the men don’t have the standard Amish beards.

Cultural pedantic nature aside, to be fair, I actually thought The Devil’s Hand’s main strength actually was when it was a harrowing drama about spiritual abuse at the hands of spiritual leaders, and finding the strength to break free. There’s a scene that is more horrifying to watch than any of the slasher moments, involving Elder Beacon groping one of the girls under the guise of inspecting her for any evil influence. It made me sick to my stomach, and considering the recent controversy involving a former youth group pastor investigated for sexual abuse of students, it’s especially despicable. Of course, then at the last quarter of the film, it turns into a bad imitation of The Seventh Seal, and the big “twist” only leaves you groaning, “really?”, as it felt ham-fisted in there at the last minute.

As I mentioned at the top of this review, The Devil’s Hand is a good way to kill 90 minutes, but that’s really it. Again, it’s mediocre at best, comes off as more of a CW drama for the most part, with a disjointed plot and flat characters. It doesn’t insult your intelligence too bad, but except for Colm Meaney’s delightful scene chewing performance, there’s not much to care about when the end credits run. Worth a look-see, but not much beyond that.

Movie Review: ANNIHILATION

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annihilationParamount
2018
R

“It’s destroying everything.”
“It’s not destroying. It’s making something new.”

It’s not an easy thing for a movie to get under my skin. As someone who cut his teeth on horror and sci-fi movies and general weird fiction at a young age, I might be what you would consider a bit jaded when it comes to these kind of movies. So, when something comes along that can really get under my skin while at the same time gets my brain going, we’ve got something special, I would say.

I was looking forward to watching Annihilation since reading the premise on Den Of Geek last year. Apparently, this was a movie that was in danger of being dumbed down by executive suits. But the director and the producer stuck to their guns, and Annihilation was released as it was…to theaters in the US and China, and Netflix everywhere else. Which seems like an insult, like the studio was trying to make the movie fail. Regardless, as an Americanite, I saw Annihilation on the big screen. And I assure you, this is worthy of the big screen, not shuffled off onto Netflix.

Spoilers ahead, everyone. Really, stop reading this and watch the movie and come back. You won’t regret it.

Still here? Well, you’ve been duly noted, then…

So, a meteorite hits a lighthouse on the Florida coast, and immediately a translucent alien soap bubble begins to slowly grow and engulf the surrounding area. Being dubbed the “shimmer”, the military and scientists send in a variety of things to study it…only whatever — and whoever — they send in never comes back. Except for one guy, who had been missing for a year. His wife, a biologist and ex-military herself, is still holding on to hope that he comes back…and he does! With no memory of where he was, or how he got back to their house, while acting strangely detached and odd. Soon after he arrives, he and the wife are taken by the military to the base set up at the outside perimeter of the slowly advancing shimmer. With her husband in a coma, the wife volunteers to join a team to go into the Shimmer and try to get to the lighthouse at the center and figure out not only what’s going on inside the Shimmer, but what may have happened to the previous team that never came back. Mostly. Anyway, as soon as they all go in, the weirdness happens, as they immediately lose three days they can’t remember. They notice the fauna and the wildlife seem to be mutating, as the Shimmer works more like a prism, refracting not only light, but also the basic DNA structure of everything within the expanding structure. Which makes for not only unique beauty, but also some very disturbing nightmare fuel. Soon, the paranoia starts to take hold, and the team begin dying one by one, until the biologist wife and the psychiatrist leader of the team remain…maybe. Do they make it to the lighthouse? Well, yes…but that’s all I’m gonna say, because YOU NEED TO WATCH THIS MOVIE.

Seriously, Annihilation is a fantastic movie that needs to be watched. That description up there? No justice to what actually goes on in the flick. This is one of those rare instances where the mix of heady hard science fiction and Lovecraftian nightmare fuel works at a level that I haven’t experienced in a long while. It’s taken me this long to figure out just how I was going to write this review without not only spoiling things, but just keeping things from spiraling into a multi-page thesis type article. I’ve been chewing on this for just over a week since seeing this, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be thinking about it long after I post this.

The disappointing thing is, I understand that Annihilation is probably going to not do as well as I want this to. Mainly because it’s not the entertaining comic book stuff that’s been the usual fare. It’s not Star Wars. It’s not a Marvel superhero movie. It’s a slow-burning, heady science fiction movie that’s more than the sum of its parts. If you love movies like Arrival, 2001: A Space Odessey, Event Horizon and Ex Machina, then do yourself a favor and go watch Annihilation while you can, in the theaters. Very much recommended.

Movie Review: The APE

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ape, theMonogram Pictures
1940
NR

“I don’t like things I can’t understand.”

The Ape is one of those old-timey B-Movies that were included on the 50 Horror Movies pack I picked up a little over a decade ago, and am still working my way through. These were comprised mostly of Public Domain films, which I dig on, because of both my love of kitschy cheese movies from the past, and sometimes you stumble upon a charming classic in the process.

The Ape falls under the former category, here.

Released in 1940 and staring Boris Karloff as a kindly yet a bit excentric doctor of medicine, The Ape clocks in at just over an hour in length. Technically not movie length, but just right for what it is.

Anyway, The Ape tells the tale of a medical doctor who is working on a way to cure a local town lady’s polio and get her to walk again. The formula he’s working on calls for spinal fluid to work; of course, everyone in town thinks the doctor is strange and ostracizes him, so there aren’t any willing donors around to help. However, an ape escapes from the nearby circus, and begins a reign of terror in the town. Soon, the ape breaks into the doctor’s laboratory, and in the ensuing fight is killed by the doctor, who then decides to skin the ape and use it as a disguise to essentially murder townspeople to harvest their sweet, sweet spinal fluid to cure the young lady. It goes about as well as you would expect.

Accordingly, The Ape was loosely base on a play made in 1924, in that the only element kept from the play was the disguising as an ape part. Otherwise, the rest of the plot was a product of the writer’s imagination. As a movie in and of itself, really the only thing keeping me from regulating The Ape to a “pass on this” verdict is Boris Karloff, who was an actor who could lend gravitas to an Elementary School play. The drama behind the townsfolk not liking the doctor seems like a forced issue, as it’s never really established why he’s disliked to begin with, beyond the standard “small town yokel” stereotyping. Fortunately, it’s only an hour long, and not too much of a slog to sit through. Definitely watch this if you’re something of a Karloff enthusiast, otherwise this is more of something you’d find on an obscure cable channel some weekend afternoon after a nap.

Movie Review: The AWAKENING

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the awakeningCohen Media Group
2011
R

“It’s never darker than when we close our eyes, and yet we keep them shut. Why is that?”

The year is 1921, and author Florence Cathcart is a famous debunker of supernatural tomfoolery and the bane of charlatans in England. She’s contacted by a teacher from a boys’ boarding school, where there have been sightings of a ghost of a young boy at the school, which may have contributed to the death of one of the living boys. He wants her to investigate, to which she initially refuses…but, then she gets all soft-hearted because she, too, was an orphan once, and all that. So, she arrives at the school, and sets up her various equipment she uses to prove whether or not there’s a haunting. Doing her best detective work, she deduces the real culprit in the death of the young boy…and it’s not a ghost. Surprise, surprise. But, even though her job is done and she’s about to leave, something happens that causes Florence to question her sanity and remain at the school a bit longer during the holiday break. She’s beginning to see things, things that may tie back to her past. And also question whether or not there really is a ghost that wanders the halls of the school.

Overall, I found The Awakening to be an interesting old school style Gothic ghost story that has the same slow-burning feel of The Others and The Woman In Black, has a very creepy atmosphere and heavy bit of tension, and unravels as a pretty good supernatural mystery. Rebecca Hall is mesmerizing as the skeptic with a sad past, and I may have developed a bit of a fanboy crush. It tends to happen. I do admit that the way the story unraveled was a bit on the predictable side, adhering to the early 20th Century ghost story formula, but that’s kind of par for the course. The Awakening was a good movie, a decent way to kill a rainy Autumn afternoon (for effect).

Movie Review: BAD KIDS OF CRESTVIEW ACADAMY

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Movie Review BAD KIDS OF CRESTVIEW ACADEMYSony
2017
R

It’s four years later, and a new group of students has been placed in Saturday detention at the infamous and prestigious Crestview Acadey. When Siouxsie, sophomore ‘undercrust,’ crashes the party to avenge her sister’s death, a Saturday detention reserved for the privileged seniors of Crestview Academy turns into a date in hell. It’s not long before a naive pussycat lover, gay drug dealer, smokin’ hot preacher’s daughter, squeaky-clean senator’s son, and the uninvited younger outsider find themselves locked-up in school with no way out, wondering who (or what) has set them up. Hilarity and suspense ensue while each ‘bad kid’ pits one against the other, and one by one each falls victim to absurdly gruesome ‘accidents’ while trying to escape.

On the strength of the better-than-it-should-have-been Bad Kids Go To Hell, I decided to immediately watch it’s sequel, Bad Kids Of Crestview Academy, as kind of a back-to-back double feature. The result was…well, I’m not surprised, let’s just say.

I’ll just come out and say that Bad Kids Of Crestview Academy is a lackluster sequel, and kind of a mediocre movie in and of itself. We have the same basic premise of the first–weekend detention with a whole new bunch of stereotypes kids, only one of them has infiltrated their upper crust clique’ to solve the murder of her older sister at a party.

Mind you, things are a bit more subverted with the plot when compared to the first movie, as the kids never get to the library (it’s locked and no one knows the security code), and the whole conspiracy hinted at in the first one is more to the fore here. And there’s no implication of any kind of “hauntings” here, just a bunch of serial killer offings of everyone until the culprit is revealed in the third act, with the remaining movie kind of losing steam until the end.

It really says something that the best parts of this movie involved brief scenes with Sean “Still Working After Lord Of The Rings” Astin, taking over from Judd Nelson as Headmaster Nash, who hams it up with cheerful abandon. Outside of that, we have characters who lean more towards annoying rather than quirky, there are so many flashback scenes injected in the main narrative that it would give Quentin Tarantino a headache, and the big reveal of who’s doing the killing is revealed rather early in the movie (not that we didn’t finger the culprit early on just by virtue of having seen so many of these things to begin with…also, there’s a scene that not-so-subtly gives things away if you pay attention), turning the rest of the movie into a siege movie for the last third.

Bad Kids Of Crestview Acadamy was “Meh”. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the movie it was a sequel to, but at least it didn’t try to just rehash the entire plot of that one. This movie needed more involvement from Sean Astin, for certain. Watch it if the thought of not seeing the sequel gets you twitchy, otherwise you can just skip this one.

Movie Review: BAD KIDS GO TO HELL

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Movie Review BAD KIDS GO TO HELLPhase 4 Films
2012
R

“Like a massive gravity sinkhole, he deforms every positive thought he encounters before sucking it into a vortex from Hell.”

On a stormy Saturday afternoon, six students from Crestview Academy begin to meet horrible fates as they serve out their detentions. Is a fellow student to blame, or perhaps Crestview’s alleged ghosts are behind the terrible acts?

Giving credit where credit is due, I only learned about Bad Kids Go To Hell by way of this movie’s sequel, Bad Kids Of Crestview Academy. I was browsing the Upcoming Rental Releases on the Family Video website (I usually go there to see what’s coming up, then use that to see if I can rent the streaming video on Amazon or Google Plus or whatnot). I came across the sequel title, did a bit of research, realized it was a sequel, and then checked out the original one first to watch, because OCD.

Useless fact: Bad Kids Go To Hell is based on a “best selling” graphic novel that I’ve never heard of (no surprise there, as I had forsaken all comics since that “One More Day” abomination that Marvel did with Spider-Man), and was seemingly released nationwide in December of 2012 to presumably every other theater except for any in Eastern Nebraska, because I don’t recall any of the theaters in Omaha or Lincoln getting this. But, I digress.

Having watched Bad Kids Go To Hell (for some odd reason, I presumed it was British in origin…it is not…sadly), I must admit that I was surprisingly entertained. It’s kind of a mash-up with The Breakfast Club (including Judd Nelson as the school’s headmaster) and a Scooby-Doo mystery, with a lot more murder and mayhem.

After an opening that starts things off at the end of the movie, we then flash back to a few hours earlier in the day, where a bunch of stereotypes kids from mostly affluent society are gathered together in the library for weekend detention. We learn that the library itself was recently remodeled, and is rumored to be haunted. The stereotypes kids begin doing that “bonding” thing that most movies aping John Hughes movies from the 80s do, and then try to bust out of the library, only to find the going rather…tough. Then the stereotypes kids start dying off in horrible ways, paranoia begins mounting as they try to figure out who’s doing the killing, and the mystery as to whether or not the ghost of the Native American whose land was stolen and the school is currently standing on is causing all the weird things happening. Spoilers: it isn’t, but the twist reveal behind everything will make you appreciate the work the culprits put in for everything. Then final confrontation wackiness ensues, and then we’re back to where we started, and the poor kid is carted off to an insane asylum while it looks like everything has to do with a (local) government conspiracy with the janitor of the school. The end.

Overall, Bad Kids Go To Hell was amusingly good for what it is. And that is a dark comedy thriller that has a tongue in cheek delivery while borrowing generously from other tropes, which results in something that doesn’t really pretend to be original, but gives us some fun times. Definitely worth a rental, here.

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