Ancient Urkesh: The Real Thing

I write historical fantasy adventure, but the archaeologists working to study and preserve ancient sites are the true heroes. Unique and priceless sites like Urkesh are in danger of being destroyed because of war and political turmoil before we can learn about our ancient ancestors and the civilizations they built.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeySet in the third century, Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure. A Persian warrior’s curiosity is ignited when he leads an invasion into Dodrazeb, a strange isolated kingdom that possesses incredible technology. Ancient Dodrazeb’s puzzling choice to hide from the world draws the warrior deeper into layers of mysteries as its princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What are the Dodrazebbians so desperate to keep hidden? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.


Ancient city of Urkesh, home to the Hurrian culture.

One of the most ancient cities known to exist on earth is Urkesh. Its exact location was a mystery until the 1990s when, after ten years of painstaking excavations, archaeologists identified Tel Mozan in northern Syria near the borders of Turkey and Iran as Urkesh. The capital city of the Hurrians, it flourished between 4000 and 1300 BCE. It initially became powerful because of its location at the intersection of major trade routes as well as its control of valuable copper deposits.


Intact stone stairway at Urkesh.

Ruins of monumental public buildings, including a large temple and a palace, have been found. The architecture is not only mud-brick construction, but also rare stone structures. Archaeologists have discovered remains of an open plaza, a monumental flight of stairs, and a deep underground shaft related to religious rituals known as the “Passage to the Netherworld.” Urkesh dominated the ancient skyline at the top of a built-up terrace that rivaled nearby mountains.


Lion and stone tablet inscribed with Hurrian language.

Very little was known about the Hurrians before Urkesh was positively identified. There may not have been many Hurrian cities in what is present-day southern Syria, but their civilization influenced the entire Middle East. They were a major influence on Mesopotamia to the south and cultures such as the Hittites as cities were first developing in that region. Unlike the centralized political structures of ancient Assyria and Egypt, Hurrian urban culture seems to have been more feudal in organization, possibly limiting the development of large palace or temple complexes.

The unique Hurrian language is unlike any other known ancient language. Historians believe that the speakers of this language originally came from the Armenian Highlands and spread over southeast Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia at the beginning of the second millennium BCE.


Hurrian incense container.

Accomplished ceramists, Hurrian pottery was highly valued in distant Egypt. Khabur ware and Nuzi ware are two types of wheel-made pottery used by the Hurrians. Khabur ware is characterized by reddish painted lines with a geometric triangular pattern and dots, while Nuzi ware has very distinctive forms, and are painted in brown or black.

Also known for achievements in metallurgy, Hurrians traded copper south to Mesopotamia from the highlands of Anatolia. The Khabur Valley had a central position in the metal trade, and copper, silver and even tin were accessible from Hurrian-dominated countries in the Anatolian highland. Among the few surviving examples of Hurrian metal work, some small fine bronze lion figurines were discovered at Urkesh.

Sadly, the Syrian civil war has disrupted the fascinating archaeological activities at Urkesh and endangered future discoveries about the Hurrian culture. The site lies close to the Turkish border, and is now protected by Kurdish troops and a team of local workers.


4,000 year-old bakery with paved floor and “beehive” oven.


Oooh! (BOOM!) Ahhh! The History of Fireworks


It’s common knowledge that fireworks originated in China, but like many marvelous inventions, it was an accidental discovery. History tells us that alchemists attempting to develop an elixir for immortality tried a recipe of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). What they got was gunpowder and soon firecrackers were in huge demand as their loud bangs were used to scare away evil spirits.

Fireworks7Just as in modern times, military engineers saw a practical use for the substance’s explosive properties. Stuffing gunpowder into bamboo tubes was just the first step. The first documented use of gunpowder in a weapon of war is a catapult in the year 1046. Imagine the numerous trials and failures that eventually led to enough success that someone proudly recorded it for posterity!

What you learned in elementary school about Marco Polo bringing fireworks to Europe from his travels in 1295 is true. But Europeans had already experienced gunpowder weaponry during the Crusades. China tried to keep the technology within its own borders, but the formula for gunpowder had been carried to the Middle East by caravans traversing the Silk Road.

Fireworks4By the 15th century, Italians had refined methods for mixing chemicals and shaping aerial shells to produce specific shapes and colors of pyrotechnics. Ambitious displays lighting up the night sky were incorporated into religious and public celebrations all across Europe. For instance, the marriage of England’s Henry VII and Elizabeth Plantagenet in 1486 saw an elaborate presentation of pyrotechnic prowess.

The rise of fireworks as entertainment coincided with the end of medieval warfare. The same science that sent colorful explosions into the air created advances in ballistic weaponry; metal armor could be punctured by projectiles and fortified walls could be demolished from a distance.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeySet in the third century, Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure. A Persian warrior’s curiosity is ignited when he leads an invasion into Dodrazeb, a strange isolated kingdom that possesses incredible technology. Ancient Dodrazeb’s puzzling choice to hide from the world draws the warrior deeper into layers of mysteries as its princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What are the Dodrazebbians so desperate to keep hidden? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.

Fireworks8Varieties of Fireworks

Stars: The small bits of explosive that scatter across the sky when fireworks explode
Peony: An explosion of stars in a radial pattern
Dahlia: Like a Peony, but with fewer and larger stars
Chrysanthemum: Like a Peony that leaves a trail of glowing particles as it falls
Crossette: A Chrysanthemum with stars that explode as smaller pieces, creating branches across the sky
Willow: Like a Crossette, but the glowing limbs must stay in the sky for 10 seconds or more
Palm: Like a Willow, but with slower-moving, slower-burning stars, resembling the limbs of a palm tree
Spider: Like the Chrysanthemum, but with longer-burning, droopy tails (like a spider’s leg)
Fish: Explodes into particles that wriggle like fish across the sky.
Rings: From a spherical shell, explosions that spread like Saturn’s rings
Time rain: Big, slow-burning stars that leave trails of sizzling, sparkling stars
Multi-break/Bouquet shells: A big shell containing smaller shells scattered by the first burst


The Origin Key Book Trailer

My first novel, for sale on, has a trailer!

The Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a sword-and-science fantasy adventure like no other. Prince Rasteem, a third-century Persian warrior, discovers an obscure culture that appears to take twenty-first century technology for granted.



When you publish a book you have to promote it, get the word out, let the world know about it. One way to do this is to blog about it constantly, but that can get boring for both me and my readers. A better way is to create (or let a talented friend create) a book trailer. I can hear you thinking, “What the heck is a book trailer?” Just like a movie trailer, but for a book, it’s a short video that gives you an idea of what the story is about. And here it is!

Celebrate this milestone with me and support a wonderful local family restaurant at the same time on Friday, August 12. We’ll be at Terranova’s Italian Restaurant in Huntsville from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. enjoying fantastic cuisine and giving away some great prizes.


Apparently when you publish a book, people get all inquisitive about your reading habits, likes and dislikes, and even want to know what inspired the story. My publisher and friend Russell Newquist recently interviewed me for his own blog. You can read all three parts of An Interview with S.D. McPhail here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3. If you have any more questions, just ask in the comments section.

Thank You, Sir Alistair Pilkington


Roman Cup made of free-blown glass.

What would life be like without glass? A lot of modern technology—like computers, cameras, and smart phones—depend on it. Decorative or utilitarian, it’s all around us, often right in front of us, and we are accustomed to looking straight through it.

Humans have been using glass since prehistoric times. Obsidian, a type of volcanic glass formed by rapid cooling of viscous lava, has extremely sharp edges, making it ideal for arrowheads, knife blades, and other cutting implements. Before the discovery of a recipe for manmade glass, ancient humans used obsidian to make weapons, tools, and ornaments.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeySet in the third century, Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure. A Persian warrior’s curiosity is ignited when he leads an invasion into Dodrazeb, a strange isolated kingdom that possesses incredible technology. Ancient Dodrazeb’s puzzling choice to hide from the world draws the warrior deeper into layers of mysteries as its princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What are the Dodrazebbians so desperate to keep hidden? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.


Greek container for scented oil made by core-forming.

Basic glass production has not changed much since ancient times. A mixture of silica, soda ash, and lime is heated to extreme temperatures, shaped into almost any form, and then allowed to cool. There is evidence of glassmaking as early as 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia. Beads, likely an accidental byproduct of metalworking, are the earliest known manmade glass objects. A surge in glassmaking technology during the late Bronze Age in Egypt and Western Asia produced decorative vessels of patterned and colored glass. The archaeological record indicates that the method for making glass from raw materials was a closely guarded secret in powerful nations. Outside of the wealthy empires, glass workers had to acquire bars of pre-formed glass to produce wares.

An early glassmaking technique was core forming. Glassmakers wound lengths of hot glass around a core of ceramic-like material to shape the body of the vessel, then added handles and a rim. When the vessel cooled, the core would be removed. Pouring hot glass into a mold is called casting. After the cast glass cooled, grinding and cutting techniques were used to refine and decorate the piece.


Greek wine-drinking bowl.

Pouring molten glass into molds was a slow and unreliable method that kept glass a luxury item for the wealthy. This changed in the 1st century BCE when Syrian and Palestinian workers discovered the art of glass blowing, inflating a glob of molten glass into a bubble at the end of a tube. The glassblower could manipulate the pliable glass into virtually any shape while adding artistic flourishes. The new manufacturing technique transformed glass into a cheap and easily produced material, gradually replacing clay and metal vessels.

James Mongrain’s amazing interpretation of mid 18th century Venetian goblets.


Can someone perfect an unbreakable smartphone screen?

Modern technology has improved glassmaking with the introduction of additives which provide color or opacity, improve quality, durability and other properties. One relatively recent innovation is the “float glass” process, first introduced in 1957 in Great Britain by Sir Alistair Pilkington. Before this method was perfected, it was impossible to create flat sheets of smooth glass with uniform thickness. Screens for laptops, mobile phones, digital cameras, and camcorders are made from float glass.

The History of Paper

What would we do without paper? There are so many varieties! We use it for cleaning, wrapping, containerizing, sharing information, personal hygiene, photos and art, currency, and so much more. Historically, one of the most widespread uses for paper has been to create books. More than just an easy way to share factual information, books entertain, enlighten, engage the mind, and promote creative thinking. Even if you prefer e-books, the tree-books had to come first. I have nothing against e-books. I love their convenience and generally low price. I also love tree-books and how I don’t have to be concerned with losing battery power while turning the pages contained between their covers.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeySet in the third century, Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure. A Persian warrior’s curiosity is ignited when he leads an invasion into Dodrazeb, a strange isolated kingdom that possesses incredible technology. Ancient Dodrazeb’s puzzling choice to hide from the world draws the warrior deeper into layers of mysteries as its princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What are the Dodrazebbians so desperate to keep hidden? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.


Books are my favorite use for paper.

Gutenberg’s press may have been the technology that made mass communication possible, causing a world-wide social revolution, but what good would movable type have been without massive quantities of affordable paper? Let’s take a few minutes to celebrate this versatile invention and trace the history of paper making.

As most of us learned in elementary school, the word paper is derived from the word papyrus, a plant material the ancient Egyptians wove into sheets used for writing. Papyrus plants were plentiful in the subtropical region of the Mediterranean, but in other regions calfskins or sheepskins were processed into parchment for the same purpose. The Chinese used bamboo, but those documents were heavy and difficult to transport. Though silk was sometimes used, it was generally too expensive to be practical. In fact, any of the materials commonly used for writing were costly, time-consuming to produce, and not easy to acquire, making written documentation rare.


Early Chinese Paper Making

History records that Cai Lun, an Imperial Chinese Court official, invented paper in 105 CE. Archaeological finds have determined that paper was being made 200 years before then, but Cai Lun can probably rightly take credit for vast improvements in the paper making process. The earliest Chinese method resulted in paper that was thick, coarse, and uneven, made from pounded and disintegrated hemp fibers. Cai Lun’s innovation, made from bark, hemp, rags, fishnet, wheat stalks and other materials, produced paper that was relatively cheap, light, thin, and durable.

European papermaking

European Paper Making

The lucrative Chinese monopoly on paper manufacturing held for hundreds of years, until in 751 the T’ang army was defeated by the Ottoman Turks. They took some captured Chinese soldiers and paper makers to Samarkand where the Arabs learned paper making from them. The Egyptians got the technology from the Arabs during the early 10th century. Around 1100, paper making arrived in Northern Africa and by 1150 it had spread to Spain as a result of the crusades. From there it spread through Europe, and in 1453, Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. As the craft of paper making spread throughout the world, it remained a relatively small-scale, artisan activity until paper production became industrialized during the 19th century.


The Diamond Sutra of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, the oldest printed book in the world.

Could paper be the key element in cultural advancement? Some historians theorize that Chinese culture was less developed than Egyptian culture in ancient times because bamboo, though abundant, was a clumsier writing material than papyrus. They contend that Chinese culture advanced before and during the Han Dynasty due to the invention of paper, and Europe advanced during the Renaissance due to the introduction of paper and the printing press.


Surprising Facts About Ancient Persia

Map_of_the_Achaemenid_EmpireIn my sword-and-science fantasy novel The Origin Key, a third-century Persian prince discovers an incredibly ancient society with surprisingly modern science and technology. The prince is not amused when he is told that the revered Persian ruler Cyrus the Great created the Persian Empire with help and advice from Dodrazeb. In the story, Dodrazeb is a fictional kingdom that originated virtually every scientific advancement known to 21st century mankind—plus some still unknown to us.

Just as my fictional Prince Rasteem was shocked to learn that his beloved empire might owe its existence to an even more ancient culture, a lot of us today are unaware of the true origins of many ideas and technological achievements. This is due, in part, to the heavy influence of Greek and Roman history on our western culture. The truth is, Greece, Rome, and the rest of the modern world owe a huge debt to the Persians.

Full article: 8 Amazing Things You Probably Didn’t Know About The Persians


  1. Cyrus_CylinderThe Cyrus Cylinder dates to 539 BC. Engraved with Akkadian language, it contains the oldest known, and possibly the very first, human rights charter. Inscriptions on the cylindrical tablet include statements of equality for all races, religions, and languages. It also defines opportunities for slaves and displaced people to return to their homelands.
  2. Nashtifan-WindmillsThe earliest known vertical axis windmills were built by Persians. Inspired by the sails of sea-going vessels, windmills were constructed to capture the energy of strong winds on land and used to grind grain or pump water. The ancient Persian windmills consisted of bundled reeds or timber forming a vertical sail. These sails were attached to a central vertical shaft by horizontal struts.
  3. YakhchalAncient Persians developed ingenious refrigeration systems, dating from circa 400 BC. The large underground storage areas were ice pits called Yakhchals and could be as large as 1.8 million cubic ft. The subterranean spaces were covered by stepped dome-like structures made of heat-resistant mud bricks and rising as high as 60 ft. high. The Yakhchals stored ice and food items year-round, providing chilled delicacies for Persian royalty.
  4. Paradise GardenPersians invented “Paradise Gardens.” In Old Iranian, the word for a breathtaking, well-tended, man-made garden is ‘pairi-daeza.’ The word became ‘paradeisos’ in Greek, and then ‘paradis’ in Old French. So the English term ‘paradise’ originated from a Persian idea of a heavenly retreat of exceptional beauty on earth. As today, the countryside of ancient Persia consisted of extremes in both topography and climate, from blizzards in severe winters to blinding dust storms in blazing summers. The terrain includes barren mountains and hostile deserts as well as fertile valleys and thick forests. Admirers of God’s sacred creation, the Persians recognized its wild beauty and determined to help make it blossom amid human habitation.
  5. AncientPersianTrousersTrousers were a Persian innovation. Until the Persians invented trousers and seamed, fitted coats, inhabitants of the Mediterranean region wore woven rectangles of cloth. The tailored garments provided superior protection in cold climates and spread to Asia and Europe. Trousers, valued especially by people who rode horses, spread quickly to China, India, and the Celtic tribes of northern Europe.

The next time you read about how advanced the Greeks and/or Romans were at the height of their civilizations, don’t forget that they benefitted from many cultures that came before. That’s how history really works.

Do you have a favorite period of history that fascinates you? What’s your favorite ancient culture? Leave a comment!

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Image_square_webby Susan

 2012, Benjamin Walker, Rufus Sewell and Dominic Cooper. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov.

For whatever reason, I can never recall the actual title of this movie. I keep calling it Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer. I don’t know why, I guess it just sounds cooler to be a slayer than a hunter. Would Buffy have been as popular or successful if she had only hunted the undead without bothering to kill them? Never mind…

I admit it: I was drawn to this movie not by the strange hybrid it represents between historical drama and gory horror flick, but by the name TIM BURTON associated with it. I generally find Tim Burton’s weirdness very entertaining, especially when Johnny Depp is involved. Alas, Burton was producer not director and Depp had already made his vampirical debut as a sympathetic bloodsucker in the excellent Dark Shadows.

Honest Abe the Vampire Slayer is unique and quite bizarre, but I’m unsure about its entertainment value. While it was an interesting mash-up of genres, using vampirism as a metaphor for the evils of slavery is simply too heavy-handed and off the wall to make much sense. In fact, it makes more sense that, if vampires do exist, they sparkle in the sunshine and drink only the blood of wild animals. That Abe Lincoln had the time to become an axe-wielding superhero-vampire-killer by night as he whiled away his time as a store-clerk-law-student by day is just a little too ludicrous, even for such a preposterous film. I was never able to successfully “get into the zone” and temporarily suspend my disbelief while watching this movie; I had to compensate by constantly telling myself that the action was all taking place in a parallel universe where Abe Lincoln fought a clandestine war with the undead for decades before it erupted into the War to Establish a Country Just for Vampires.

With that said, there were some interesting and mildly entertaining aspects to be found. The iconic image of Abraham Lincoln in his stove-pipe hat wielding an axe like a modern-day superhero bent on defeating evil is almost enough to justify the entire project. It was a waaaay cool tricked out axe, by the way. The most memorable scene for me was the one where Lincoln and the vampire he was chasing were caught up in a horse stampede. I’ve never seen anything quite like that done with CG – it was very impressive and exciting. The climactic train-crossing-a-burning-bridge scene was also very well done, though it felt much more familiar.

All in all, watching the movie felt like reading a graphic novel. If I had wanted to read a graphic novel, I would not have spent my money on seeing a movie in a theater. There was some great artistic effort put into it, but the characters (other than Lincoln) were far too two-dimensional. Once or twice I even found myself hoping that one of Abe’s close associates would be defeated by the vampires just to liven things up. The vampires were quite gruesome both when they were killing and being killed, but it just came across as more yawn-worthy than scary.

I’m not sure how he managed to pull it off, but Benjamin Walker’s performance was very good. He made a believable and sympathetic Lincoln even as he aged from a naïve backwoods boy into a troubled and distressed president plagued by an army of the undead.

The bottom line: The premise had great promise but the execution lacked substance. The tone was too serious for such a ridiculous take on the personal life of Lincoln and the execution too ridiculous for the true horrors of the Civil War. Let’s hope Pride and Prejudice and Zombies translates to the big screen much better than this did. If it doesn’t, someone please drive a stake through its heart now (or blow its brains out, whichever is appropriate for zombies) and save us all from it.

One serving of popcornRating: Single Serving


Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Sir Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, et al. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by John Logan from the book by Brian Selznick.

I have just returned from some parallel universe where Martin Scorsese makes kid’s movies and Sacha Baron Cohen plays a funny, yet lovable and quirky character that is entirely suitable for viewing by children. I really liked that place. I’d love to visit there again.

The previews for Hugo looked fairly interesting but I was inclined to pass it over as just more typical, big-budget Christmastime family fare, not something that I would find much substance in. It went on my “rent it eventually” list. Then I saw that it was directed by Martin Scorsese. That Martin Scorsese?! The director who gave us The Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island*, the classics Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and a host of others? These are titles that spring immediately to mind as some of the most memorable from a very prolific director, but they are all quite definitely aimed at an adult audience. You want a beautiful movie that includes violence and mature themes – Scorsese is the go-to man. Sure, Scorsese is versatile, but is he versatile enough to make a movie suitable for children? It was a conundrum. I paid closer attention to the previews. The story is based on an award-winning book. Sacha Baron Cohen and Sir Ben Kingsley are both in it. Kingsley brings a sense of class and style to mind; Cohen – to put it mildly – does not. What kind of film is this that seems to be packaging up all of these wildly disparate elements? Hugo was removed from the rental list and elevated to the “must see it in a theater right away” list.

The movie Hugo is based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Set in the 1930’s, Hugo Cabret has been orphaned and lives in the walls of the Paris train station. Hugo and his father had been restoring a mechanical man before the father died, and it is Hugo’s obsession to finish. He must steal not only the food he eats, but also the spare parts and gears needed to repair the automaton. One day Hugo is caught filching more parts by a mean old man who runs a toy shop stall at the train station and also meets the man’s goddaughter Isabelle who – miraculously – seems to be the keeper of the key to the mystery of the automaton’s purpose. The mystery only deepens as Hugo and Isabelle keep trying to discover the secrets that can explain what links the old man, the automaton, and Hugo to each other.

The one word that may best capture the essence of this movie is simply “magic.” Ben Kingsley is wonderful as the sad, mean old man, Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedic genius who should play this kind of family-friendly role more often, and the two young actors Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz are incredible. Christopher Lee is a treat as are the familiar faces among the train station regulars. The sets are amazing, evoking a sense of not only a particular place and time but also an emotional connection to Hugo’s world. We view the inner workings of all the gears and springs perfectly meshed, ticking away as the world rushes by, people unaware of the delicate human touches necessary to maintain the façade they can see.

As Hugo and Isabelle finally begin to get answers to their questions, we are treated to the most magical of illusions; the discovery of where our very dreams come from. Scorsese is a modern-day magician who has crafted a unique classic with appeal to an audience of all ages that captures the wonder and joy of making dreams come to life. The ability to capture dreams and give them to the world on film is truly a gift that should be honored, preserved, and shared with future generations. If you consider yourself a cinephile, a lover of movies, and this one does not touch you deeply, you have no imagination and you should resign from the human race.

One last thought – Ben Kingsley’s character is Georges Melies. You might want to Google him after you see the film.

*Yes, I am a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. Even when some members of my family mistakenly refer to him as Leonardo DaVinci. Envision the dramatic heaving of a heavy sigh, the exaggerated rolling of eyes, and a head shaken in despair; not all of my relatives share my passion for cinema. I love them anyway.

A full bucket of popcorn!One serving of popcornRating: Full Bucket plus an extra serving and a handful of tissues

J. Edgar

by CosmicTwin3

2011, Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dustin Lance Black.

J. Edgar Hoover is a name most everyone recognizes, even if they are too young to know what he was best known for.  What do most people know about him? He was the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for just about forever and there were nasty rumors about his personal life. The truth is, he built the foundation for the FBI to become the outstanding and respected law enforcement agency it is today, while at the same time keeping his personal life so secretive it would be easy to conclude that he had no life outside the FBI.

I’ve never been all that interested in J. Edgar Hoover, but I do appreciate a good Clint Eastwood movie. Mr. Eastwood has a great talent for highlighting the place and time of his movies in a way that helps the viewer understand the context and historical significance of the setting which leads to a greater understanding of the characters. The Changeling, another real-life story Eastwood brought to the big screen, was superb in that regard.

To begin to understand why J. Edgar Hoover did what he did and why he did it, one must first understand what the United States was like and how politics impacted him as a young man. Eastwood deftly interweaves historical events into the narrative, focusing on incidents like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, giving us J. Edgar’s own, somewhat distorted, version of the story and then clarifying what the actual truth was. You see, Mr. Hoover’s recollection of major events often did not dovetail very smoothly with actual facts. He was fond of taking credit for high-profile arrests of criminals and enjoyed the spotlight of publicity for his role as the head of the FBI.

There is no doubt that Hoover was instrumental in organizing and creating a modern, efficient law enforcement agency that would use the latest scientific advancements to track criminals, fight crime, and prosecute offenders. There is also no doubt that he was a paranoid, egotistical, spiteful, fussy, manipulative, secretive, “mama’s boy” who was probably gay and may have had trouble admitting it even to himself. The longer he was at the FBI, the more files he accumulated on politicians and influential people that contained damaging personal information. Hoover routinely used this information as a form of blackmail against those who might challenge his authority until he met his match in Richard M. Nixon, the president who was even more paranoid than Hoover.

Leondardo DiCaprio in the title role demonstrates once again that he is one of the greatest actors of his generation. Even under the heavy makeup that was necessary to create the illusion of growing older, DiCaprio embodies his character so completely it is easy to despise and pity him at the same time. Armie Hammer was great as the life-long inseparable “best friend” who seemed to know Hoover even better than Hoover knew himself.

Eastwood’s movie must just skim the surface of such a complex and mystifying personality as J. Edgar Hoover, but I left the theater feeling like I know a lot more about both twentieth century American history and the man whose name is inscribed on the FBI Headquarters building in Washington, D.C. It’s an absorbing biopic that both enlightens and entertains..

A full bucket of popcorn!Cosmic Twins rating: Full Bucket


by CosmicTwin3


2011, Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, and David Thewlis. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by John Orloff.

William Shakespeare may not have written all those plays and sonnets and what-not that have his name on them? I have to admit I never gave it much thought. Apparently, others have.

I am a big fan of several Roland Emmerich films, namely: Stargate, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC, 2012. Every time I start listing Roland Emmerich movies, I almost forget about The Patriot, which is not all that surprising as it doesn’t seem to fit in the longer list of sci-fi/fantasy/doomsday features. So you can imagine my surprise when I noticed on the coming attractions last summer that Anonymous was directed by Mr. Emmerich. In one way it makes perfect sense – recreating Elizabethan England in glorious detail with CGI must be a little bit similar to creating alien invasions or bringing herds of woolly mammoths to life. But how does anyone go about making an entertaining movie that postulates William Shakespeare was a fraud? I mean, isn’t that the kind of thing you find on “Preposterous Stories and Conspiracy Theories” on cable TV?

The previews looked pretty interesting and my curiosity was piqued; if old Will Shakespeare didn’t write all those works attributed to him, who could it have been? Besides, I would enjoy seeing that time and place brought realistically to the big screen. So I made plans to see it with two friends, one of whom was adamantly insistent that it would be a terrible travesty, a blasphemous defamation to even suggest that Shakespeare’s works were not his own. I agreed that it was a pretty far-fetched theory, but it could make for an interesting movie nonetheless.

The movie was not only very good, it was riveting. It’s a political thriller centered around the issue of succession – who would assume the throne after Elizabeth I? The intricate complexities of court intrigue were at times a bit difficult to follow (the extent of my knowledge of that period of history comes more from seeing a handful of episodes of The Tudors and the occasional History Channel special than any real scholarly pursuit) but I managed to not get lost. The issue of succession was so critical to so many rich and powerful people that some would not stop at murder to gain the outcome most favorable to them. What does any of this have to do with who wrote the works of Shakespeare? Manipulation of the popular media for political purposes! For an illiterate populace, seeing stage plays was frequently more than just mere entertainment; it was a means of communicating ideas about the current political climate and information about people in power. Emmerich’s Anonymous suggests that the true author of the works in question used certain plays with specific themes to make statements about corruption in high places and to rouse the citizenry to action.

My skeptical movie companion was unswayed by the end of the movie and is still a devout believer in William Shakespeare being the true author. She thinks the movie was horrible. I disagree – not about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, that’s absurd! I think it was a pretty good movie with great performances. Don’t think of it as revisionist history, think of it as an alternate reality. Either way, we still have those wonderful plays and sonnets and what-not that were written by a real genius.

Three boxes of popcornCosmic Twins rating: Triple Serving