Literally worthy, Thor: Ragnarok

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but of all the action-adventure movies in the last ten years, “Thor: Ragnarok” is the one all writers need to see. Multiple times.
The buy-in: It’s an absurd mashup of two worlds (Norse mythology and sci-fi) that shouldn’t work. Its populated by colorful immortals, so there’s no cheesy mentor-figure death scene. And it asks you to overlook the preposterous (multiple gateways through space, magic, gods, heroes leaping from spaceship to spaceship) so frequently that the story is practically set in a sort of Anti-Reality.
The reward: One of the best collections of sarcastic quips and heartfelt insights around. Seriously. Going in, you also don’t need to know anything about these amazing, over the top characters. (A primer: Thor is good, half-brother Loki is mostly bad, Dr. Strange is a big deal and the Hulk is, well, complicated.)
Thor–he of the red cape, bulging biceps and golden locks–finally gets his ego checked (when his Goddess of Death sister, Hella, destroys his once-all-powerful hammer) and spends much of the film bouncing between self-deprecation and wistfulness. Exiled to a garbage planet, what better way to offset his earnestness than the combo of his duplicitous, power-hungry brother and an acerbic drunk who’s happy with her place as a bounty hunter? A Taser-like device provides much of the pain and fun. The appearance of the belligerent Hulk (then an ingeniously inept and bewildered Bruce Banner) adds to the joy, book-ended by Jeff Goldblum’s bizarre Grand Master. (‘Slaves’ is an ugly word. ‘Prisoners with jobs’ is much better.)
In interviews, director Taika Waititi said he constantly asked himself (and the cast and crew), “How can we make this funnier…?” He thought this might be the last film he ever got to make. Of course, it was a blockbuster.

One-eyed Thor and Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnorak

The whole story is about a hero trying to get back home (stolen by that problematic Goddess of Death sister) and then (spoiler alert) realizing that what’s most important about home is the people. His people. Still, the ending comes off with a nice, unexpected twist. We don’t doubt Thor will save the day, but how he chooses to do so is remarkable.
The heart of the tale comes with the Elevator Scene, a chat between Thor and troublemaker Loki which really should have its own place in film lore. (“We’re not doing ‘Get help'” should be on a T-shirt.) Rather than cheesy or trite, this two-minute chunk is the funniest, honest, state-of-things exchange between two people since FroZone and wife ‘Honey’ argue in ‘The Incredibles.’

Thor and Loki, elevator scene from Thor: Ragnorak
The Elevator Scene

It starts with the funniest ever use of “You had one job,” progresses through blame and jokes (and the cosmos, twice) to Thor singing to Banner and a ‘melting stick’, and on and on. It’s a wild ride and it’s fun to no end. Writers, take note…and take notes.

A Return (of sorts)

So…by announcing that I’m back (hold the chirping crickets, please) I have to acknowledge that I’ve been somewhere. Well, I have. Kind of. About 50-odd feet away, downstairs.

Where in the hell have I been? See above.

What happened? Good question.

Anybody remember the variety show where the old guy in a tux stood on stage and tried to keep a number of dinner plates spinning on posts? He went back and forth spinning various plates with his hands, to see how many he could keep up at once? This always failed hilariously (and messily) but this was his shtick and he was good at it. Temporarily.

A chef spinning multiple plates on stage.

This routine is–in a nutshell–how I’ve felt my life has been for about, oh, 14 years. As a dad (stay-at-home, cooking, carpooling, entertaining) and go-to guy and writer and worker of various kinds of off-site projects, the to-do lists have never gotten shorter. Priorities have changed, locations (such as being on vacation as a family) have changed. Before the holidays, I had to left-leg surgeries and began a rigorous diet program (both things that were good for me). Time and tasks were impacted by a juggling element (and I suck at juggling). Ultimately, something was doomed to fall off the bottom of the priorities list. Guess what it was. Fifty points if you answered, “What are book marketing and blogging, Justin?”

The thing which made this break from blogging and marketing easier, I guess, was a real hit to self-worth (and the worth of what I write). Okay, that’s not good. I know that now.

But this is exactly what happens to a lot of artists, I think. We write, we craft, we produce, and…what’s the result, other than the thing we’ve created? More sales? Positive feedback? If you aren’t plugged into some sort of engine which guarantees an uplifting return of some sort…aren’t you just another chap shouting in the London drizzle at Speaker’s Corner? Bumbershoots pass by, faces occasionally turn, maybe a single bit of applause. (Yes, of course, the wriggle cockapoo gets far more attention. It’s cute and harmless, for one.)

For me, and for those like me, time seems to roar past us. I’ve taken a million steps and done two million things since my first visit to the surgery center. Can I recall a tenth of those things? Nope. And now it’s mid-May, and there are a number of things I haven’t touched in, oh, five months. Grrr.

Time to start again. Life rolls on. I hear a plate cracking behind me. This time, I’m going to wait to collect those pieces.

Today’s Word: Promulgate

To promulgate (and what a fun word!) is to broadcast, promote or spread-the-word of an idea or cause (or a person as an idea).

Augustus Caesar from the HBO/BBC TV series of "Rome."


Me: “I just finished watching the TV series of ‘Rome.’ Man, that Augustus Caesar really promulgated his benevolence to the masses.”

Sister-in-law: “Yeah, well the two men he followed [Julius Caesar and Mark Antony] promulgated themselves in other ways to the masses. I don’t think ‘benevolence’ applies, there.

Today’s Word: Engastration

*First in a running series, part-humor and informative (and partly to add a little structure to my messy writing life.)

Engastration is the cooking process of shoving parts of one animal inside another animal carcass for enhanced flavor. ‘Turducken’ is the best example, being all the rage now.

Supposedly, it dates back to the Middle Ages, which means there was certainly a male royal chef (no woman would do this) armed with alcohol and perhaps a purse at stake, on a dare.

Still, for most of us, how bored and/or drunk would you have to be to come up with shoving one tasty animal inside another for cooking? And was this done artfully with a knife (if one can ever ‘shove’ artfully) or just, find an opening and go for it?!

Blurry hand holding knife over stone floor


Me: “I heard your brother’s going to attempt a turducken himself this year. Isn’t that engastration stuff kinda barbaric?”

Sister-in-law: “Oh, seriously,” she agreed, pulling out the first to-go box of fresh-boiled lobster. “Who would do that?”

What We Notice

A sort of cautionary tale, if you will:

The other day, after collecting my daughter from school, I ran across an archetype: A young, well-dressed and bespectacled man crossing the neighborhood street. One so plugged into his phone he wouldn’t have noticed a 747 touching down on the road. (Twenty bucks says he can’t remember seeing my red minivan at all.) He carried on his way, blissfully ignorant of everything.

No Distractions For Old Men

This was not always the case. In what you might call a moment of art imitating life, there’s an unforgettable scene at the end of the Coen brothers’ 2007 award-winner No Country For Old Men. Hit-man Anton Chigurh (played brilliantly by Javier Bardem) is making his casual getaway (after tying up loose ends) when he’s involved in a car accident. Alas, author Cormac McCarthy denies the audience a cathartic comeuppance for the most famous villain since Darth Vader. The wounded Chigurh bribes two witnesses into silence (and for a shirt for his mangled arm) and limps off into West Texas anonymity.

Set in 1980, of course, there was no cell phone or Clash of Clans to distract Chigurh. He simply didn’t see the other car barreling through the red light.

(I haven’t yet read the book, as it’s on my list, and may have missed a passage of deep thought on his part.) Still, this moment seems a little tough to sell.

The Sell

Hollywood, being Hollywood, loves to play small tricks on audience members. (Most of the time, the subtle details are so subtle that we fail to notice their absence.) How many times has the camera been focused tight on the hero’s eyes, deep in thought, only to cut to a wider shot to show that something–often in broad daylight–appears and takes both hero and audience by utter surprise? The quick look up, the musical jolt and heart-rate spike, meant to set people on edge with tension. Even when the surprising thing/beast/enemy has come into view at molasses speed. How often is this, well, unrealistic?

Does life imitate art? The young cell-phone man I saw the other day had one foot (and both brain hemispheres) in the digital ether. A ubiquitous sight, to be sure. Call it his excuse. For the rest of us, when our eyes aren’t on a small pixellated screen, how much would you fail to notice?


As a decent driver (around kids all the time) my eyes have become attuned to any quick movement. Rather than some super-human ability, it’s more the knowledge of what does happen when a car meets a living thing. The idea that some 4-year-old is certainly running down the sidewalk with his face in Mom’s iPhone raises this fear to the next integer. I move with modern caution, nothing more.

In my first book, Watching the World Fall, kidnapping victim MacReynolds Galtier is 7’1″ tall. People can’t help but notice when he walks into a room. It’s a primal draw of the eyes–our lizard brain reacting (and assessing) any presence which occupies that much volume.

Years ago, my wife and I were hiking in snowy mountains when a jumbo jet passed by, low enough and close enough to read the registration numbers. Seconds later, the loud whoosh of an avalanche we couldn’t see made us look wildly about (to make sure we were on safe ground). In a previous blog, I noted how Steven Spielberg apparently got lazy with some of his film-making. Who wouldn’t notice 20 tons of T-Rex stomping through a neighborhood? With an animal that size, you’d probably feel a change in air pressure.

Javier Bardem plays hitman Anton Chigurh in the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men

So, back to Old Country: On a tree-lined street in mid-day, a professional killer (senses obviously attuned to subtle changes in shadow and smell) doesn’t notice a car approaching at 30 m.p.h. from his left? Not futzing with the radio. Not playing with his cell phone (a quarter-century too early for that). He just doesn’t notice?

I’ve had a few soccer balls cross my vision at a blur. (Yup, they would’ve hurt.) While pencils may roll off desks inexplicably (or, from the wind) huge starships don’t ‘suddenly appear’ in the sky, unless your narrator is woozy from been whacked over the head. Us humans are aware of much more than many-a-cliche-peddler needs a reader to believe.

I, for one, would notice if some huge beast lurked beneath the dark surface of that lake. A lizard certainly would.