Top Films of 2017

EOTY 2017 Film

As in years past, I didn’t watch a ton of movies. I have a long list of 2017 films that I really need to see and many of those will probably end up on this list. The movies that I did go out to the theater to see were the big genre movies that I’d been anticipating: comic book and sci-fi movies. So I’m intentionally leaving this “top ten” list short so I can save room for the movies I haven’t seen that I anticipate may gain entry once I’ve seen them. I’ll add my watchlist at the bottom of the post and you can tell me which ones I should prioritize.

7. The Lego Batman Movie

Forget Ben Affleck, Will Arnett is great as the titular character in this hilarious movie. It’s a lighter take on The Dark Knight that we haven’t seen since Adam West and Burt Ward were running around in the 60’s. It pokes fun at the long history of the character and also has a warm heart under the wild action. I loved it.

6. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

A great second entry to the series that focuses on fathers, biological and figurative.

Read my full review here.

5. Thor: Ragnarok

Taika Waititi was hired to direct a 3rd Thor movie after the 2nd one largely failed to land with audiences. Waititi’s comedic sensibilities were on full display here as the movie was almost a parody of itself while also propelling the Marvel Cinematic Universe forward. The action was goofy fun and the side characters were all great. The villain Hela was perfectly portrayed by Cate Blanchett. I hope she’s back for Infinity War! I had a great time with this movie.

4. Wonder Woman

I consider Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice to be a complete debacle. But it did introduce Wonder Woman to the film universe and she was the best part of that movie. In her solo film, things only got better. The story was great, the action was amazing and the heart was warm. Chris Pine was perfect as the hotshot pilot who quickly took a backseat to the more-powerful Diana and sacrificed himself for victory. Great, great movie. Then it was basically back to business as usual for Justice League. *sigh*

3. Spiderman: Homecoming

This may be the first Spider-Man movie to actually get Peter Parker perfectly. By making it all about a smart high-school clown who gets in way over his head, it connected with the audience in a way many of these comic book movies never do. It was warm, super funny and full of action. The plot device of making the villain also his crush’s dad made for some really great scenes. Tom Holland is so great in this and I love seeing Martin Starr getting work in Hollywood. Freaks and Geeks forever!

2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I don’t have much more to say on this one. It’s great and I want to rewatch it again as soon as possible.

1. Logan

Logan was crushingly good. I wish we got more comic book movies like that, that break down the genre into it’s sparest parts and create a story for adults. The themes of failure, death, fatherhood and masculinity were very well done. In some ways, Logan was being Luke Skywalker before The Last Jedi came out. He’s a once-powerful hero who has seen so much pain and loss that he want to retreat and live out his days away from the action. But when the need is great and things get personal, he is forced decide what his place is in the conflict that he’s partly to blame for creating. Hugh Jackman is amazing here and so is Patrick Stewart. It’s a visceral, violent neo-Western packaged as an X-Men movie. I hope that Disney’s acquisition of the film rights to the X-Men won’t quash future movies like this one. In an epoch when comic book movies come out almost monthly, we need these unique deconstructions to mix up the formula and demonstrate what kind of stories can be told if you tear up the templates.


My Movie Watchlist

Here are some movies that I am looking forward to seeing that I just haven’t gotten to yet. Any suggestions for what I should put at the top of the list?

  • Baby Driver
  • War for the Planet of the Apes
  • Coco
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Alien: Covenant
  • John Wick: Chapter 2
  • The Shape of Water
  • It Comes at Night
  • Okja
  • Kong: Skull Island
  • Dunkirk (how have I not seen this yet?!)
  • IT
  • The Lost City of Z
  • The Big Sick
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FILM REVIEW | Star Wars – The Last Jedi [spoilers]

You know how bands that are about 5 years into their careers often release a double album? And you know how those double albums are rarely good all the way through, featuring enough good songs to fill 1 regular album and then a bunch of stuff that is pretty unnecessary? I mean, the good songs are often very, very good; it’s just that the not-good songs are very, very forgettable or outright bad. Why do bands feel like they need to put all that on the album and expand the run time to accommodate them? Couldn’t they edit it a bit? It’s because they personally feel very good about what they’ve done on all the songs and they have a vision that they all just belong together in one big collection. We’ve seen it time and time again.

And this creative gluttony is definitely not confined to the musical world. Filmmakers are probably even more prone to this. We often see tent pole genre films ballooning up towards the 3 hour mark just to fit all the plot in. Heck, we’ve seen a trend for big series to split their final entry into two parts, creating a literal double album of content (and doubling profits for the studios in the process). And that’s kind how I felt about my 1st viewing of The Last Jedi. A lot to like, even love! The good things are very, very good, but I could have done without a few of the lesser tracks in favor of a more streamlined approach. Maybe a bit like The White Album, which features some of the best songs The Beatles ever made while also featuring a few that most people don’t mind skipping.

That’s really my only criticism of this movie and honestly it is fading the more I mull the film over in my mind. This movie is built for discussion. So with that, let’s take the deep dive.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE


Background

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, hired JJ Abrams and released The Force Awakens, fans were overjoyed that a new Star Wars film existed that wasn’t the prequels! We recognized that it was a glorified remake of A New Hope, but we didn’t care all that much because it was wildly entertaining and the casting was a revelation. Still, as the movie sunk further into our brains, many realized that we really wanted the story to advance a bit more and show us some new things, not just play cool covers of the franchise’s greatest hits.

Since then, the Star Wars “brass” has hired some great directors to make new Star Wars movies, only to swoop in later and make changes. They “helped” Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) reshoot / retool Rogue One, they hired/fired Josh Trank (Chronicle) for a Boba Fett movie (and canceled it), they hired/fired Lord & Miller (The Lego Movie) for the Han Solo film (bringing in Ron Howard instead) and hired/fired Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) for Episode IX (bringing back JJ Abrams instead). It seems that the Lucasfilm brain trust (Kathleen Kennedy specifically) and Disney wanted to have it both ways: visionary and talented young directors who will stick to Lucasfilm’s established formulas and story ideas. Some guys couldn’t handle that and were summarily dismissed in favor of more known quantities (echoes of Edgar Wright’s time on Ant-Man for Marvel Studios). In the midst of swirling industry rumors surrounding these movements, the interwebs were silent about Rian Johnson’s work on The Last Jedi, and that was probably a good thing, indicating that everyone was very happy with what he was building. Then, a month before release, Lucasfilm announced that Johnson would soon be creating an adjacent Star Wars trilogy all his own! Clearly they liked what this guy was doing, but what did that mean? It turns out it meant that they wanted someone to push the story forward in very unexpected ways and propel the uncoupling process from the original trilogy forward. Basically it’s the opposite of what people thought they were angling for.

Plot

Let’s start with the plot of the movie. We pick up right where The Force Awakens left off. After Starkiller Base was destroyed by the resistance, the First Order is in hot pursuit of the small convoy to get revenge and wipe out their forces once and for all. The opening action scene is reminiscent of Rogue One – a real space battle with Poe Dameron leading the charge from some awesome looking bomber ships. It’s great.

Rey, meanwhile, was tasked with getting Luke Skywalker back into the action. He’s a legendary, superheroic figure that everyone in the resistance believes will win the war for them. Surprise: Luke wants nothing to do with galactic conflict anymore. In fact, he’s had it up to here with the Jedi and the Force altogether! This is a fascinating turn for the character that’s hard to grapple with at first. Luke, after all, was the pinnacle hero of the original franchise! Once it becomes more clear what caused him to retreat to a hermitage, we’re a little more understanding (or at least I am). Luke starts to train Rey in the ways of the Jedi and sees the power that she already possesses.

And then Luke sees that Rey is connected with Kylo through the Force. They are communicating telepathically across space. These scenes are so well done and are truly one of the best things in the movie.

When Rey leaves to confront Kylo, Luke is livid enough to make moves to burn the Force tree and the Jedi texts. And that’s when force-ghost Yoda appears and counsels Luke just like old times. Yes, the tree still burns, but Yoda says Rey has what she needs (hint hint).

As all that’s happening, the resistance is stuck in a 20mph car chase with the First Order. They can’t jump to light speed because that would use up all their fuel and the First Order can track them somehow and follow and blast them. But maybe, just maybe, they could break the tracker on the Star Destroyer and then jump away cleanly! Finn and a new character named Rose take a small ship and jump away to a casino world to attempt to hire a code-breaker to help them get through the Star Destroyer’s defenses and…. yeah… it doesn’t matter. This whole plot point was vestigial in my mind. And the slow chase seemed like a bit of a plot contrivance. More on that later.

In the meantime, Leia is in a coma after almost getting killed and the vice-admiral Holdo takes over, but Poe doesn’t like her choices. Soon he tries to force some action through mutiny. This stuff all seemed like it could have been avoided with a closed-door conversation about the plan of action and Poe’s place in it. Clearly Holdo believes that the tracking thing could be the work of a spy rather than advanced tech, so she needs to keep the plan on a need to know basis, but Poe might be one of those people who needs to know! Anyway, Holdo is a good guy and the soundless scene of her light speeding into the First Order Dreadnaught ship was breathtakingly good.

And now the best scene in the movie: the throne room scene. Kylo brings Rey to Snoke and she’s tempted to the Dark Side. She resists and then Kylo rises up, kills Snoke and fights his guards side-by-side with Rey. The battle is a visual feast! And Kylo and Rey fighting together! But Kylo still wants Rey to join him as he’s now in charge.  Kylo has doubled down on the dark side and is now the Big Bad in the films. Woah.

It is shocking that Snoke was dispatched like this. There was a lot of digital ink spilled over Snoke’s origins! Was he Darth Plaugeis? Was he Mace Windu? Was he some animated series character?  Rian Johnson forces us to accept that those things don’t matter. Snoke was a big bad guy and now he’s dead. This was always about Kylo Ren more than it was about Snoke. Move on, fanboys. Gutsy call by Rian Johnson!

Battle_of_Crait.jpg

We finish with the big battle on Crait, a beautiful “salt planet” that reminds us of the battle on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. The visuals of the white salt with blood red soil underneath were gorgeous. In the end, Skywalker finally appears and Kylo is obsessed with killing him, which allows the rebels to escape out the back door with Rey’s help. The twist, of course, is that Luke isn’t really there. He’s projecting from his island, creating a diversion and saying farewell to Leia. The exertion of projecting takes its toll and Luke finally fades out, alone but content that the story and the cause doesn’t depend on him.

So the rebel forces are severely reduced in number, but Leia says they have everything they need to continue the fight.

And then the coda, where were circle back to some random slave kids from the casino planet playing with home made Luke Skywalker action figures and recounting the legends. When the boy is sent out to sweep the barn, he casually pulls the broom to his hand with the Force and gazes up at the stars, brandishing the handle like a lightsaber. I love it.

Characters

One of the best aspects of The Force Awakens was the casting. All the new core characters were extremely well cast, full of crackling gravitas on screen. They were young, diverse and compelling. While that film went to great lengths to give the old guard of Han and Leia some screen time, it was the newcomers that truly stole the show.

In The Last Jedi, Luke returns to action and is given a great arc. There were many who wondered if Mark Hamill had simply been out of the game too long. After the original trilogy, Hamill pivoted to doing a lot of voice over work and dutifully participated in the convention circuit. When he got the call to come back for some new movies, he didn’t have too much going on that would prevent him from rejoining the rebellion. But could he still act on screen? The answer is a resounding “YES”! Hamill is great in this as the wounded and reclusive Luke Skywalker.

Leia is also great in this movie. Carrie Fisher’s final performance of the character is funny, nuanced and earnest. Space Mary Poppins scene aside , she was a stabilizing and tough presence for the resistance band.

Rey and Kylo are the heart and soul of this film. Their scenes are so, so good. Their chemistry is undeniable and their characters complement each other so well. It’s revealed that Rey’s parents were nobodies, drunks who sold her for booze money. Kylo is really Ben Solo, from the most famous force-using family in the galaxy! They are opposite ends of the spectrum in every sense, which makes them a really great conflict to watch.

Finn and Rose, umm, they didn’t really have much to do. I like their characters for the most part, but it just seemed like the plot didn’t do them enough justice. I thought Finn really should have died on Crait, sacrificing himself for the rebels and finally growing up enough to no flee from his fears. Instead, he’s saved to maybe wander around in the next film too. Still, I love John Boyega, I just wish the writers gave him an interesting plotline!

Poe Dameron too just seemed a bit frustrating from time to time. I get that he’s hotheaded and impulsive (“Let’s go blow stuff up!”), but his foolish zeal wore thin after awhile. Hasn’t he been at this long enough that he knows it’s not always about blasting things from his X-wing?

Likes

So there were so many things I liked. As other have said, this is clearly the best looking Star Wars movie yet. Rian Johnson knows how to use color and style to craft a memorable canvas for his story. The deep red colors of the throne room and Crait were a welcome addition to the standard Star Wars color palette.

The characters, as I said, were great – especially Kylo, Rey and Luke.

The movie was a lot jokier that I thought it would be. Sometimes it was jarring how goofy and physical the humor was, but it helped lighten what would otherwise have been a very heavy movie.

The space action … oh man the space action. So good.

I also liked the direction they took the story. So much of the current “backlash” seems to be centered on the way they spun Star Wars in a different direction than many expected. I love that and I think it made the themes of the movie a lot deeper.

Dislikes

The entire Finn and Rose mission to Canto Bight was a tough detour during the movie. They went to hire a rogue codebreaker, got caught, found a second rate codebreaker instead, freed some abused animals, got betrayed by the codebreaker and none of it mattered in the end at all. Sure, they were the ones who encountered the slave kids who show up in the end. So was that whole plan just to set up that coda? Was the Force handing them failure to set up a greater victory?

Or, more likely, was it to explore another corner of the galaxy far, far away and point out that “the 1%” exist there too. These people are profiting from the Star Wars, dealing weapons and supplies to both sides and living in luxury as a result. A little heavy handed political commentary, but oblique enough to not be too annoying. Still, this plot thread made the movie 30 minutes longer than it needed to be in my opinion.

Also, I’m still not sold on Admiral Leia surviving in the vacuum of space and then flying back into the ship and surviving. I appreciate that she’s a force user and that’s great. I just thought that scene came off as very corny to me.

Themes

There were a lot of big themes in this movie that I thought were pretty profound.

The first theme is how failures can often teach us more than successes can. Yoda is the one who points this out to Luke.

“The greatest teacher, failure is.” Yoda to Luke

We see failures happening all over the place and the characters having to deal with the fallout from them. Finn and Rose’s mission fails. Hux fails hilariously and all the time. Poe’s ideas are shouted down and he fails as well. And of course Luke’s failure with Ben Solo is what sent him spiraling into isolation and set the whole new trilogy in motion.

Not to mention the difficult realization that the entire original trilogy ended with a glorious victory on Endor that ultimately failed to make a lasting difference in the galaxy! Han and Leia’s marriage failed. Leia’s new Republic failed.

Failures have huge consequences that can end up negative or positive in the end. In this case, trusting the Force is what really matters, something that can be a great allegory for God.

In fact, the version of the Force that we see here is much more like the God of the Bible than other entries in the canon. The Force is a character here, not just a mysterious energy field that can be manipulated. It’s not tied to a bloodline, it chooses people regardless of their race or station – much like God in the New Testament spreads his covenant promises to all races and not just the family of Abraham! Rey is a nobody, says Kylo, who doesn’t have a place in this story. Still, the Force has called to her and gifted her with great power and strength that she didn’t earn. And in the end, the Force is doing it again with a nobody slave kid on Canto Bight. The people aren’t the story, they aren’t the ones winning these fights. Luke’s arc ends with him and his friends realizing that he isn’t actually the superhero that will win the war with his mere presence. For Luke, that’s a freeing thing and he passes on, secure in the idea that his legacy lives on because the Force lives on.

And finally the idea of the “balance of the Force” makes more sense than ever. When Anakin appears way back in The Phantom Menace, the Jedi all wonder if he’s the chosen one who will bring balance to the Force (whatever that means). In reality, his fall to the Dark Side tips the balance far away from the light. Perhaps the Jedi had been strong for so long that the balance that was needed was actually a correction to the Dark? Then Luke rises up to challenge Vader and the Emperor. Then Snoke and Kylo take power and Rey rises up as Kylo’s reciprocal. The Force itself is willing a balance into existence when it is required! It’s a complicated, uncomfortable picture of what the Force is really all about. I kind of love it.

The theme of hope has always been very important in Star Wars. There is hope when the odds are stacked against our heroes. There is hope for fallen characters to return to the light. In The Last Jedi, hope isn’t a person (Luke, Rey, Leia, etc) but an actual faith that good will survive and ultimately win over evil. Maybe not today, but eventually. When Finn’s kamikaze attempt is thwarted by Rose, she delivers a powerful line:

“That’s how we’re gonna win, not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.” – Rose Tico

Masterful. The resistance is back to being a rebellion and is reduced to a force small enough to fit on the Millennium Falcon, but they have faith that they will win because they will continue to prioritize saving those they love over killing those they hate. That’s also what Vice Admiral Holdo was arguing to Poe in the 2nd act. She wanted to get the people to safety rather than risk everyone’s lives by mounting a desperate attack with little hope of victory. And that’s where Rey and Kylo differ in their philosophies as well.

“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” – Kylo Ren

Kylo hates his past because it hurt him, so he wants desperately to kill his father, his mentor, his new master. He wants to remake the universe in his own pained image. Rey wants to seek the wisdom of her elders but isn’t afraid to point out their flaws as she strives for peace. She wants to save Kylo because she does have compassion for him, her enemy.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” – Jesus in Matthew 44:43-45

As the rebels say in the end, their light will become a spark that will become a fire that will burn evil to the ground.

Conclusion

The Last Jedi is an overly-long, complicated movie with big ideas and a beautiful subtext on the difference between light and darkness. It widens the horizons of the franchise in great ways, daring to imagine that the Force is even more mysterious than we all thought and that the story is bigger than the characters we love. The story is bigger than the characters we love. 

I’m very curious to see where the franchise goes from here and I’m very pleased that they have adjusted course away from the “play the hits” franchise reboot. I think this is a movie that will actually improve with repeated viewings, which is a very rare thing for blockbusters these days.

Thanks for the great movie, Rian.

Fatherhood and Stranger Things

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As I finished the second season of Stranger Things on Netflix, I began processing the season as a whole. So many things set this season apart from the first season. There were more characters (probably too many more), more adversaries, more stakes and (for better or worse) more locations. As the show expanded its scope to keep the story moving, some of what made season 1 great was minimized slightly. Still, one thing that stood out to me as a man and as a father was the theme of fatherhood. It might not be the first theme that comes to mind when you think about Stranger Things, but it’s definitely a big one. The question of what makes a good father is all over the place and I started to realize that the juxtaposition of Biological Fathers vs. Father Figures was quite profound and it extended back to the first season as well. Let’s take a look at the characters and the idea of fatherhood throughout Stranger Things.

Spoilers for both seasons of Stranger Things follow!


Biological Fathers

When you start to take stock of the biological fathers in Stranger Things, you realize that almost all of them are very distant and uncaring if they are present at all.

Ted Wheeler

Ted is Mike and Nancy’s dad. He’s still married to their mom, Karen, but he’s portrayed an oblivious buffoon to all the drama and tragedy that’s affecting his family. The extent of his wading into the family affairs is to chide “Language!” when Nancy swears in frustration at the dinner table. As the family literally unravels around him, Karen sarcastically says she hopes he’s enjoying the chicken. Ted’s response?

Ted is an example of a man who’s disengaged from his family and the fact that cosmic horror is infiltrating his children and home doesn’t spur him to action. He’s only concerned with his work and his newspaper. In season two, both of his older children are gone for what seems like days and no care is given. Also in season two, there’s a scene in the final episode (that’s played for some laughs) where Karen is taking a romantic bath alone with a paperback romance novel when the doorbell rings. Ted is asleep in his easy chair and doesn’t hear it or Karen’s pleas for him to get it. She ends up coming down in a robe to find Billy with his shirt unbuttoned asking after his sister. He flirts with her and she demurely entertains it as her husband snoozes in the den. Though it’s a slightly goofy scene, it’s really another portrayal of how Ted’s laziness is a huge threat to their marriage and family.

Lonnie Byers

Lonnie is Will and Jonathan’s dad, Joyce’s ex-husband. Before the events of season 1, Joyce and Lonnie got divorced and Lonnie moved to Indianapolis. When Will goes missing, Joyce and Hopper figure he might be with Lonnie, but all their phone calls are ignored. Jonathan goes to Indianapolis to see if Will is there and Lonnie shows little care for his missing son. He eventually shows up in Hawkins when there is the possibility that money could be paid out for Will’s “death” by falling in the quarry. Lonnie is selfish, uncaring, cold and absent from his family’s life.

Neil Hargrove

Neil is Billy’s biological dad, seen in one episode of season 2. Neil is married to Max’s mom, creating a blended family that’s new to Hawkins. When we first meet Billy and Max, they are on their own with Billy in charge of Max. When the parents finally return from a trip, Neil and his wife realize that Max is not home and Billy doesn’t know or care where she is. Neil is furious with Billy and hits him, demanding he take responsibility for Max and locate her. It becomes clear that Billy’s violent and wild tendencies are a direct result of his father’s verbal and physical abuse. The few minutes that Neil is on the screen are intense and sad as we see a domineering and violent father who has created a toxic relationship with his son that is spilling out into the rest of their family and beyond.  When Billy is a “substitute father” for Max early in season 2, he reflects all these things to her and cultivates the same fear-based relationship that exists between him and his father.

So the biological fathers don’t have much screen time overall in the series. When they are part of the story, they’re depicting traits that a common flaws of fatherhood in the real world – laziness, self-absorption, neglect, abandonment and violence.


Father Figures

What about the non-biological father figures? In almost every case, the father figures of Stranger Things are much more positive characters, embodying good fatherhood traits and displaying great character.

But there’s one huge exception that we’ll look at first.

Dr. Martin Brenner

The main human villain of season 1 is Dr. Brenner. He’s the architect of the study that essentially kidnapped and abused Eleven for years. Over the course of her captivity and study, he encourages her to call him “Papa”, which she does throughout the series. He casts himself as a protector for her even as he spearheads her abuse. He doesn’t truly care about her, he cares about furthering his own agenda. He uses her. It’s another common complaint that parents in general often “use” their children for their own selfish motives in various ways. This is just a grossly exaggerated example of what that kind of perversion of fatherhood looks like.

Mr Clarke

Scott Clarke is a minor recurring character, but one who influences Mike, Will, Dustin and Lucas immensely. He’s the nerdy science teacher who is basically a hero to the boys when we first meet them. He’s funny and approachable. He clearly appeals to the more nerdy personalities of these boys and has encouraged them in their interests and learning. He sparks their imaginations with his science lessons and radio equipment. When the boys need help understanding “The Upside Down”, they go to Mr. Clarke, who illustrates the theories of other dimensions to them – patiently entertaining what he believes to be a flight of fancy. He’s intelligent, resourceful, caring and friendly – traits of a great father.

Steve Harrington

In season 1, Steve is a guy that most fans of the show didn’t want Nancy to date. She was supposed to be with Jonathan, right? Steve even smashed Jonathan’s camera. Still, he grew into a part of the team and someone we rooted for. In season two, Steve grew even more. After breaking up with Nancy and getting bullied by Billy, he was a sad sack until Dustin needed his help. None of his friends were around and Dustin needed someone to contain the creature with him. Soon, Steve and Dustin were a charming and unlikely pairing that had great chemistry. Dustin lives with his mom and his dad is out of the picture. Through their interactions, Dustin begins to look up to Steve and ask him for advice. Steve eventually opens up a bit and shares with Dustin, counseling him on the finer points of wooing girls and getting his hair to look cool. He helps the kids with their big plan and takes some literal punches defending them from Billy. In the end, it’s Steve dropping Dustin off at the dance with a final pep-talk and encouragement. Steve proves to be a worthy father figure to Dustin in a myriad of ways.

Bob Newby

Bob is a new character for season 2 and is dating Joyce Byers. He’s a clerk at Radio Shack and is a vanilla goofball with a heart of gold. It’s obvious right away that he adores Joyce and is really serious about being part of the Byers family (even though he doesn’t know all the details of their ordeal from the previous year). Jonathan and Will aren’t too sure about him at first, but Bob continually reaches out to them. Soon, Will is again oppressed by the Upside Down monsters and Bob is right there with Joyce trying to help deal with it. In the end, Bob is stuck in the Hawkins Lab building with them as the monsters run wild, killing dozens. To get out, someone with technical skill needs to reach the control room and unlock the doors. Hopper volunteers, but Bob is the one with the tech skills. He frees everyone from the building and almost escapes himself when the monsters catch him and devour him. Bob is tender, loving, selfless and ultimately sacrificial for those he loves. He does a great job of embodying the traits of a good father and husband though he was technically neither.

Chief Jim Hopper

Hopper is one of the central characters of the show. His back story tells us that he was once married and had a daughter. His daughter tragically died of cancer as a child, which led to a divorce with his wife. This broken man returns to his childhood town and lives an unhealthy life of drinking, smoking and one-night stands. That’s where we find him in season 1 as Will’s disappearance forces him to sober up. His paternal instincts clearly drive him here as he throws himself into the case and the lives of these children. He fights for them, protects them and sacrifices for them throughout the whole series. When season 2 rolls around, we find that Hopper and Eleven have formed a makeshift family. He’s caring for her as a father cares for a daughter. They laugh and play together, but also butt heads when he puts her safety as a top priority even when she is stronger than he is. In the end of the season, it’s the two of them against the evil monster and we conclude with Hopper holding a birth certificate for Jane Hopper. He is her legal father and also fills the father figure role to many of the boys in the cast.


The “Daddy Issues” trope can often be overplayed in Hollywood, yet the reason it’s used so often is that it is effective. We are hardwired, created to want to know our fathers. While the role of mothers is of utmost importance as well and shouldn’t be minimized, it’s clear that children need good male role models in their lives and often suffer greatly without them.

In Stranger Things, we’re presented with many examples and invited to parse out the character traits of these men and wrestle with their roles. There are many men who embody the traits of bad fathers and many who do the opposite. The reality is that all of us fathers are prone to all of these traits at different times and in different measures. There are no perfect fathers.

But there is a perfect Father. God the Father is the perfect embodiment of all these good fatherly traits. He’s patient, approachable, intelligent, caring, defending, helpful, gives good counsel, tender, fights for us, sacrifices for us and laughs with us. He’s also never selfish, abusive, absent, uncaring, disengaged, lazy or cruel. He created us, he loves us, he gave his only Son up to death for us and he pursues us when we’re lost.

When we’re confronted with good and bad examples of father archetypes and “daddy issues” in movies and TV shows, we can how those examples up against the Bible’s descriptions of our Heavenly Father. We can rejoice at the good examples and say “Our Father in heaven is like that with his children, only way more so!” And we can mourn at the bad examples, saying “I know there are fathers like that, sometimes it’s even me, but I’m so glad that God is never, ever like that with his children.”

Where else have you seen depictions of fathers that made you think about the nature of our heavenly Father? 

MOVIE REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

Remember back in 2014 when Marvel was set to release the first Guardians of the Galaxy film? Back then, it was seen as their biggest risk to date. A sort of “heat check” to see if their blockbuster franchise had grown big enough that audiences basically went to see the films regardless of the characters they centered on. Sure, Guardians was an established comic book property, but most of the general movie-going public had no idea who Star Lord, Groot and Rocket Raccoon were. Still, guided by the vision of James Gunn, the movie became one of the most loved films in the canon (and one of my personal favorites). It was a wild comedic sci-fi romp that pumped the 70’s music and leaned on the likability of the characters and their wise-cracking dialog. It was fantastic. Everyone knew there would be a sequel and this time there was a lot less uncertainty about it’s reception. We were all excited to see where the team would go next.

Spoilers follow! Come back after you’ve seen the film!


The great thing about sequels is that you don’t need to spend so much of the film getting to know the characters – you can jump right into the action and get moving with the plot. Here, we begin with a flashback to the 70’s and a budding romance. The first film spent some time exploring the origins of the hero Peter Quill – a human who was taken from Earth by space pirates as a young boy moments after  his mother died of cancer. He never knew his dad, but the pirates (led by Yondu) raised him aboard their ship. In volume 2, Quill will finally meet his father and learn about himself. In fact, his father and mother are the young couple in our opening prologue. Quill’s father is a celestial alien. A god-like being named Ego.

After a crazy opening battle and chase scene, Ego finally finds Peter and announces his identity as his father. He invites Quill to come to his own, personal planet to learn who he really is. Ego explains his own origin and then Peter’s, telling him that his destiny to to join him on this world as a celestial. You see, Peter has some of the same powers as Ego to create and control matter. But it’s what Ego what’s Peter to use those powers for that turns everything into chaos.

Ego, as it turns out, is a mad god-like being intent on bulldozing the galaxy to expand himself into everything. He always needed a partner to accomplish this goal, so he has been sleeping around the galaxy hoping that he would produce an heir to assist him with his plan. Peter is that heir, but he and his friends are ready to fight to save the galaxy … again.

In the meantime, there are some B and C plots going on that figure into the overall theme of family and what that means to a person’s identity. Gamora and Nebula are sisters who were raised by an evil alien who forced them to battle each other. When Nebula lost, a part of her was “upgraded” until she was as metal mosaic and angry with her Gamora for always winning. Would these two reconcile or split again? And Rocket is dealing with an inferiority complex he’s had all along and realizing that he and Peter, who often at odds, are very similar. So can they co-exist on the team?

These family issues (and, sure, daddy issues) give the film a personal depth that balances well with the quips and space battles. Daddy issues have become something of an eye-rolling trope in movies, especially sci-fi movies, but the bottom line is that these stories are affecting for audiences because everyone struggles with the underlying themes they bring up. The quintessential plot question of “who am I?” is given a new dimension with the question of “who is my father/mother?”. Star Wars owns the patent on “what if my father is evil?” and many films have played off that question. If my father is a bad guy, does that make me a bad guy? Can I battle my own father if he’s evil? Could I even kill my own father if I had to? And what does it mean that I have part of my evil father inside of me? These are deep questions that create lots of tension for movie characters and their audiences.

And that’s where a side character from the first movie becomes a surprisingly deep, central character to the story in volume 2: Yondu, the pirate who took Peter from Earth and raised him as a pirate. Yondu was a father-figure for Peter for years, but not always for the best. And we see Yondu shunned by his crew and other pirates for violating their code by transporting children at one point. We soon learn that Ego had employed Yondu to retrieve his progeny from across the universe and deliver them to his planet. There, Ego tested the children and killed them when they were unable to match his powers. Yondu lived with the reality of his role in those deaths and went rogue, keeping Peter on his ship and never delivering him as promised. Yondu served as a surrogate father, one that Peter didn’t always appreciate until the very end when Yondu gives his life to save Peter’s. Yondu’s somewhat goofy line was actually full of depth: “Ego may have been your father, but he wasn’t your daddy.”

There’s a profundity to that statement. And Yondu’s Christ-like sacrifice drive home a theological vision of a true father-figure who doesn’t abandon his people to sin and the grave (like our evil father would want), but gives his life to save ours and show himself as our true daddy.

And not only that, Yondu’s sacrifice galvanizes the troubled relationships among the team – the family. At one point, someone says that a good team wouldn’t be constantly yelling at each other, to which they reply that they’re not a team, they’re a family. And the family is brought together and peace is found when they see selfless sacrifice demonstrated for their own benefit. The sisters Gamora and Nebula realize that while they were often pitted against each other, they were sisters all along and that was a blessing. Rocket sees Yondu as a father-figure to himself and Peter and grieves the loss along with his “brother”. It’s beautiful.


So Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, to me, is a smashing success. Maybe not quite on the level of the fantastic first adventure, but definitely a worthy sequel (and that’s a hard thing to accomplish). I’m so glad that James Gunn is locked in for Volume 3 because it’s his vision and guidance that make these films what they are. I can’t wait to see what family theme they will under-gird it with.

And what songs are on the soundtrack.

And what Drax and Groot will do to steal the show.

Top Films of 2016

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As the era of “Peak TV” rolls on, the movie industry has lost a step. For me, I go to the theater for blockbusters that I think get a boost from the big screen. For the more independent films I enjoy, I wait to stream them later or see them second run. That’s just the way it is. But I did see quite a few good movies from 2016, so here are my top ten favorites!

10. X-Men: Apocalypse

First Class was excellent. Days of Future Past was good. Apocalypse was okay. With a stellar cast (again), you’d think that the stakes and the story would have been able to play up to their strengths, but it was a struggle. Oscar Isaac was under-served for sure and Lawrence/Fassbender/McAvoy just didn’t carry it. Franchise boredom? I am interested, however, to see if they push forward with the young generation they introduced here. What I really want is a proper Dark Phoenix saga.

9. Hail, Caesar!

The Coen Brothers’ new movie was one of their screwball comedies, this time centered on old Hollywood. It was a bit scattered, but very, very funny with plenty of standout performances. After getting a lot of enjoyment out of the podcast “You Must Remember This”, which is all about old Hollywood, this movie was even cooler for me.

8. Zootopia

Lately it seems like the Disney Animation films have been even better than their Pixar sisters. While Pixar has leaned into sequels, Disney Animation has crafted some brand new and interesting stories. With Zootopia, they brought some nascent cultural talking points to the big screen along with colorful characters, action and funny gags. The kids enjoyed it and we adults mulled over the themes for a long time.

7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

What a surprisingly brilliant film! Taika Waititi is a genius and the cast of this film, particularly the young Julian Dennison, was amazing! Cast in the mold of a Wes Anderson movie, Wilderpeople has adventures, big laughs and plenty of heart. My wife and I fell in love with it quickly. Waititi’s next project is Thor: Ragnarok and I can’t wait to see what he brings to the Marvel Cinematic Universe!

6. Sing Street

John Carney is back, 10 years after making one of my all-time favorite movies: Once. Here, he presents a semi-autobiographical story of a misfit teenager with a crumbling family who forms a band to impress a girl. It’s a coming of age story with fantastic music and an amazing cast of young actors. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and I highly, highly recommend it. Especially if, like me, you were once a teenage musician.

5. Doctor Strange

I never got around to writing a full review of Doctor Strange, but I thought it was great. A somewhat cookie cutter origin story with predictable beats was redeemed with great performances and staggering special effects. It was a coup to get Benedict Cumberbatch for this role and he knocks it out of the park. Plus, Strange’s journey from being a great doctor who was completely self-absorbed to a mystic who was willing to suffer eternal defeat to save others had a lot of gospel in it.

4. 10 Cloverfield Lane

Oh man, this movie. It kind of came out of nowhere for me. Essentially a big “bottle episode”, the construction of the story and claustrophobic/panicked feel of this one evoked Alfred Hitchcock to me.  Winstead and Goodman were incredible in their roles and the mystery didn’t just take over the story (like sometimes happens in these Abrams-verse movies). If you haven’t seen this one, I highly recommend it.

3. Star Trek Beyond

While JJ Abrams was busy helping reboot another “Star” franchise, Star Trek soldiered on with a 3rd entry in the new series, but things didn’t go smoothly. Lots of internal problems led to restructuring the writing/directing team. Eventually, Simon Pegg and Doug Jung were the writers and Justin Linn of Fast and Furious fame took the directors chair. The result was a great Star Trek movie that is built on the chemistry of this young cast. It’s optimistic, fun, action-packed and a joy to watch. I loved how they handled the death of Leonard Nimoy and paid homage to franchise history. I’m hopeful for the future of this franchise with Simon Pegg in the fold and this cast (sadly, minus Anton Yelchin).

2. Captain America: Civil War

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a recurring problem with presenting worthy adversaries for their heroes to fight. With this entry, they pitted the good guys against each other! Based on a well-known comic event series, this movie did a great job of making the central argument as a difficult philosophical question that even the audience had trouble taking sides on. So while the stakes didn’t seem terribly high as the action unfolded, we still cared about everyone involved. And the airport scene is still one of the best action set pieces the MCU has put together.

1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

What can I say? This movie was amazing. I had tried hard to avoid any discussion or spoilers for this one and I’m glad I did. There were so many surprises that put big smiles on my face. And some moments that made my jaw drop. It is the best looking Star Wars movie ever, without a doubt. And I loved that they matched some of the characters looks to the 1977 looks of Episode IV. It had just enough connective tissue to the core saga, but really stood on its own as a great story. K2SO was an amazing character and totally stole the show. And the music throughout was astoundingly good, using the John Williams leitmotif templates but venturing out into original territory perfectly too. It depicted the complexity of war and politics and rebellion very well, making it quite relevant. I so badly want to watch this and Episode IV back-to-back. Actually, I just want any excuse to see this movie again.

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond

SPOILERS ABOUND


star-trek-beyond-poster-usI wrote awhile back about my anticipation for the third film the re-booted Star Trek franchise.  At the time, the marketing of the movie was finally getting in gear after a somewhat disastrous teaser trailer that looked like it the marriage of Fast and Furious director Justin Lin and Star Trek meant shoehorning the former into the latter. As things normalized a bit with more press, it became clear that this film was, indeed, a Star Trek movie. But the question remained: was it a good Star Trek movie? And, perhaps more importantly, what makes a good Star Trek movie in 2016? Before we get into the details of this movie, we should address that question.

Star Trek was created as a TV series in the 1960’s by an optimistic futurist named Gene Roddenberry. His vision for humanity’s future was one of peace, cooperation, integration and adventure. It was idealistic. It was about spreading the best values of humanity to the infinite vastness of space. Sure, you had to punch some bad guys along the way, but the point was depicting a promising future, not a nihilistic one. Today, almost all depictions of the future are nihilistic. From our infatuation with the post-apocalyptic to the male anti-hero archetype to environmental disaster depictions, we don’t seem too hopeful about what the future holds. Even Superman, the superhero embodiment of “good and right”, is now depicted as a troubled and angst-ridden alien. So what place does Star Trek have in this cultural era anyway? The last film in the franchise, the maligned Star Trek Into Darkness, borrowed some of that dark iconography by putting forth a conspiracy story about evil war mongering within Starfleet. Oh, and they misguidedly put the biggest Kirk-era villain into the story and badly parodied the biggest cinematic moment in the franchise. The point I’m trying to make is that the powers that be seemed to think that Roddenberry’s Star Trek won’t work today. At least not in the cinema.

But there was a shift in thinking somewhere in 2014 during the pre-production work on Star Trek Beyond. The writers were fired and the script duties were assigned to Simon Pegg, the actor who plays Scotty in this series. Pegg and his writing partner Doug Jung worked hard to deliver a script that got back to the things that made Star Trek great to begin with: great characters, big ideas and good action and fun. I’m pleased to say that they actually did it.

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You see, a big part of what made the Shatner/Nimoy/etc. ensemble work so well for 30 years was their chemistry. The ensemble was just so good together. In television, the mark of a good ensemble cast is the ability to mine good story and dialog from basically any pairing of characters. It’s a writing tool that can create stories for years. NBC’s Parks and Recreation is a great example. That show had one of the best ensemble casts of all time (in my opinion) and almost every episode involved pairing off cast members in interesting combinations and watching them interact with each other. Pegg and Jung realized that this cast is extremely good and decided to split them up for a large portion of the movie to see what would happen. So at the end of Act I, the Enterprise is viciously destroyed and the crew is strewn across a barren planet. It’s Kirk/Chekov, Sulu/Uhura, Scotty/Jaylah (a cool new character in the mold of Rey and Katniss) and Spock/McCoy. Each pair has great scenes and even greater dialog (especially between McCoy and Spock). So while the action scenes are pretty cool (with Lin’s direction), the character interactions make this movie great.

So the story goes that the Enterprise is in year 3 of her 5-year mission and the crew is getting pretty sick of it. Kirk is looking for other jobs and so is Spock. They arrive at a super cool looking starbase called Yorktown for a break. But soon they get word of a ship that crashed on a planet in the middle of a dangerous nebula. They’re called on to go out to rescue the crew. Of course, things go badly as the call is more of a trap. The Enterprise is shredded in orbit and the crew abandons ship, landing on the planet. Many are taken hostage by Krall, the leader of the swarm of drones. The crew has to break out their friends, get off the planet and stop Krall from killing everyone in Yorktown with a biological weapon.

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The central ideological conflict here is about peace and unity. Krall, it turns out, was once the captain of a Starfleet ship called the Franklin. Before that, he was a very successful soldier. But the military was dismantled and spun into Starfleet, a peace-keeping organization. Krall found little fulfillment in peace-keeping, he was wired to be a soldier. When his ship crashed, he sent out distress signals, but the Federation never came to their aid. This was his proof that unity and peace are the wrong goal to strive for. Strength comes from conflict and struggle. It’s the equal and opposite view of the Federation, making this villain more compelling that many other recent Trek villians. Still, his motivation wasn’t completely unpacked and his story of conveniently finding alien tech to help him achieve his goals was thin.

Jaylah, on the other hand, was a pretty cool supporting character. She was lured to the planet and marooned there years ago and watched Krall and his thug kill her family. She’s looking for revenge, but also for belonging. She’s fighting and surviving on her own and finally finds success and redemption in the form of friends from the Enterprise. Again, the theme of “stronger together” shines through.

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The same goes for Kirk and Spock. They begin the film with their eyes set on other pursuits that take them away from their crew and “family” and into other roles. In the end, they find that they belong together exploring space. There’s a very cool moment towards the end where Spock, still maybe considering departing, opens a gift from “Spock Prime” who has passed away. It’s a picture of the Prime Universe crew from around the time of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. They are all advanced in age, but all together on the bridge of the Enterprise and smiling. These characters are meant to be together, and Spock is struck by what could someday be true for him as it was for his older doppelganger.

Of course, this movie also features some cool callbacks to other Star Trek series and some nifty inside jokes too. Pegg and Jung have some humor chops, obviously, and they picked their moments extremely well. Karl Urban’s McCoy steals the show time and again throughout the movie, but each actor gets their screen time in good measure.

In the end, Lin and Pegg/Jung have crafted probably the best story of the “new Trek” universe (the Kelvin Timeline). It’s refreshing to see the themes of unity and a better tomorrow in a summer blockbuster, especially in a time when these ideas rarely find a voice. It’s exactly what a 2016 Star Trek movie should be.


JJ Abrams has (crazily) already voiced his hopes for a Star Trek 4 and said that they have a cool story that would bring back Chris Hemsworth as Kirk’s father (seen briefly in the absolutely brilliant opening sequence of 2009’s Star Trek). Nothing is set in stone, apparently, but I’d love to see another outing for this crew. However, I think they seriously need to consider giving Pegg/Jung writing duties again. Those two know what makes Star Trek great.

I’d love to see Hemsworth back in the fold, but I really don’t want a time travel storyline. In fact, the original script for Beyond (written by Roberto Orci) featured a time travel element and the studio ultimately scrapped it and fired Orci. Rumor has it the script included a cameo for William Shatner, who would have met Chris Pine’s Kirk. Maybe a re-tooling of this very script is what Abrams was referring to?

My pitch to get Hemsworth into the story? Kirk and company find their way to a planet with a (classic Trek staple) “god-like alien(s)” who tap(s) into their psyches for some weird torture. James Kirk is forced to encounter and perhaps fight his father George. Maybe we get Q into the Kelvin timeline or go for the original – Trelane?

Pitch #2: parallel storylines. We cut back and forth a bit between a mission of the Kelvin and a mission of the Enterprise that are related somehow.

Just no time travel, please. We’ve seen enough of that.

The one shadow hanging over all this speculation is the tragic death of Anton Yelchin who portrayed Chekov. Abrams has wisely said that he can’t see the role being recast, so there would be a hole in the cast that would be felt deeply. Still, there are options, the best of which would be to add a female crew member to the mix (Saavik has already been suggested, which could create some interesting tension for Spock and Uhura).

In any case, 2016 is turning into a pretty cool year for Trek. With a great movie in the theaters and the January return to television with Star Trek: Discovery, the future looks promising.


 

What do you think of Star Trek, 50 years into the franchise? Did you like Beyond? Are you interested in Discovery?

TV REVIEW: Stranger Things

TV REVIEW:

Stranger Things (Netflix)

SPOILER FREE

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In recent years, the sprawling success of Netflix has forced them to change their company strategy. Where once they were just another upstart distribution service for older movies, they soon came to be viewed as a competitor by their suppliers (Hollywood). As movie studios gradually pulled their content out of the streaming catalog, Netflix pivoted to focusing on TV series (becoming the new syndication standard) and on original content. Like a new network, the early days were about first making a name for themselves with interesting and provocative series, but also about just getting enough programming to fill time. Netflix went to creative minds and basically gave them carte blanche to create their show how they wanted. With this model, Netflix has had some big hits (Orange is the New Black) and a few whiffs (Hemlock Grove). Still, they’ve had an impressive track record to this point with prestige-style dramas (House of Cards), pulpy comic book adaptations (Daredevil), quirky sitcoms (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), compelling docu-series (Making  a Murderer), kids shows (Voltron) and adult cartoons (Bojack Horseman). They’ve even started financing the releases of actual films too (Beasts of No Nation). In 2013, Netflix’s chief content officer famously said, “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” That quote became prophetic as HBO launched a cable-free streaming option for all their content last year.

Last year, I caught wind of a new Netflix project with the working title “Montauk”. Winona Ryder had just been cast, giving the series a headliner with a good resume and name recognition. The project was billed as a supernatural mystery series set in Montauk, NY, and was described as “a love letter to the ’80s classics that captivated a generation.” It was being helmed by The Duffer Brothers, who I’d never heard of. From there, not much was said about the project for a good long time. Only in the last couple of months were trailers released for “Stranger Things” and I realized that this was “Montauk”.

The series was released on Friday and I burned through the 8 episodes in 3 days, probably the fastest I’ve binge-watched a Netflix series. I was completely taken in by this amazing show.

Instead of taking place in Montauk, NY, the Duffer brothers reset the show in a sleepy small town in Indiana in 1983. The story revolves around the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy and the mysterious events that begin to happen after that.

What really sets this show apart is the clear influence of the films of the 80’s, specifically Spielberg and his peers. Familiar tropes from those films are joyously adapted into this fresh story. This is homage at its finest, but the Duffers don’t just copy and paste, they update the ideas of those films and view them through a 21st-century lens. Take Ryder’s character as an example. A frantic and grieving mother character may be familiar, but she dials her performance to 11 and doesn’t pull any punches. The same goes for David Harbour’s depiction of the small town sheriff. He’s a complicated and wounded man, struggling through depression with sex, drugs, and alcohol. Probably a little too real for the Amblin pillars of the 80’s.

And then there’s the central group of kids. They’re perfectly cast. Just perfect. Their chemistry is undeniable and it’s just a joy to be part of their world when it gets spun around by the scary events of the story.

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All the familiarity of this genre plays so well in this series. As someone who grew up watching those movies all the time, it feels so warm and nostalgic to see those beats hit again with such precision and skill. I had a similar feeling about JJ Abrams’ film “Super 8” a couple years back. But the series format of “Stranger Things” allows the story to breathe more and for the characters to travel further on their journeys.

And the music. Oh my goodness, the music. The Duffers were apparently granted enough cash to buy the rights to some great music from the early 80’s, which lends a lot of authenticity to the show. However, it’s the John Carpenter-evoking score that really stands out to me. As soon as the iconic title sequence begins, I get goosebumps. The dark synths are incredible (courtesy of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the Austin band SURVIVE). Couple that with the iconic fonts and the subtle film scratch effects, this is a gorgeous sequence that perfectly sets up the vibe of the show.

I’m not going to post any spoilers regarding the storyline of the series because I highly recommend you watch it for yourself. I’ve watched lots of Netflix’s series and this one is my favorite with a bullet. It’s thrilling, funny, scary and emotional. It’s 8 episodes long and has a beginning, a middle and an end. With that said, I’d love to hear Netflix announce a renewal of this series. Watching it is like watching an up and coming band at a small club and realizing that the next time they’re in town they’ll probably be playing an arena. Watch the Duffer brothers now before they’re making awesome summer blockbusters or Marvel movies.

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BONUS

A short list of awesome films that influence “Stranger Things”:

  • Explorers
  • The Goonies
  • E.T. – The Extraterrestrial
  • Flight of the Navigator
  • D.A.R.Y.L
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • The Last Starfighter
  • Stand By Me
  • Invaders from Mars
  • Jurassic Park

 

Anticipating Star Trek Beyond

trekbeyondcloudspossm_bigThere’s a new Star Trek movie coming in July! And, frankly, unless you read a lot of geeky film blogs, you may not have realized that the 3rd film in the series was even imminent. Indeed, the franchise underwent a creative turnover (or two) in the last few years. JJ Abrams departed the directors chair to helm Star Wars: The Force Awakens (you may have heard of it). After some uncertainty and a jettisoned first script, Justin Lin was brought in to direct a script written largely by Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty in this series). News was only trickling out on this film for a long time, but it was assumed that Paramount had a vested interest in capitalizing on the 50 anniversary of the franchise this year. Was the film going to be rushed into production? Did the creative team learn their lessons from Star Trek Into Darkness? Would we finally get away from earth in this installment?

Then the first teaser trailer dropped back in December and… umm…. this is it:

Yikes. For the geeks who worried that Justin Lin would turn Star Trek into another entry in his other franchise (Fast and the Furious), this did little to calm them. Frenetic action, loud music, motorcycle stunts. Blah. It didn’t feel like a Trek movie. And from that point it, it was largely radio silence from the studio. Simon Pegg went on record asking fans to be patient and promising that teaser trailer was more about the marketing department than about the actual film. Patience paid off last week when the marketing blitz finally launched with a proper trailer.

Pegg was right, patience was a good idea. This trailer looks much better than the first.

We get some great, wide shots of space battles (and confirmation that the Enterprise is going down).

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We get some great character moments.

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We get a great look at our brand new (thankfully) villain played by the amazing Idris Elba.

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And we get just enough of a hint as to the story to make us want to know more.

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Plus, this amazingly cool warp shot that’s unlike any we’ve ever seen.

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I’m totally excited for this.

MOVIE REVIEW | Captain America: Civil War

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been on a winning streak pretty much since its inception with Iron Man. By combining great actors with good scripts, amazing action sequences and a sense of humor, they’ve set the gold standard for these “shared universe” franchises that every studio is clamoring to emulate. If there was ever a knock on the MCU movies, it was the lack of compelling villains. The first Avengers movie featured Loki (brilliantly played by Tom Hiddleston) as the nemesis of our favorite team and that turn was probably the most successful of any villain so far in the franchise. Most other movies, including the somewhat disappointing Age of Ultron‘s vengeful android, put forth antagonists who just don’t seem to live up to the hype. We know that the next Avengers-proper films will be the 2-part Infinity War story that will (we assume) finally bring galactic baddie Thanos into the mix in full. Until then, who will challenge our favorite superheroes? Marvel, in their wisdom, realized that now was the time to release their cinematic take on Civil War, a cornerstone comic story arch that pitted our protagonists against each other in a battle of ideals. Oh, and fists.


When this film was announced way back when, Marvel stated that it would feature the largest cast of superheroes yet, even more than Ultron did. But this wasn’t the next Avengers movie, this was Captain America 3. This was always going to be Cap’s movie with the rest of the characters orbiting him and his journey setting the course of the plot. While Chris Evans’ portrayal of Cap anchors the Avengers movies in a big way, his solo films have an aesthetic and feel all their own. After launching the character with a 1940’s-era origin story, the action moved to modern day with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the feel of the storyline pivoted in an almost genius sort of way. Cap became a sort of fish-out-of-water. He was a “greatest generation” war veteran with all the idealism and patriotism of that era, but was confronted with the much grayer tones of modern America. Hydra had infiltrated SHIELD and grown within it. The government, even his friend Nick Fury, became much harder to trust after witnessing that infiltration and the violent fallout. I love the tone of Winter Soldier because it’s just so different from the other films in this vast series. It felt like 1970’s paranoia/spy thriller. And it was masterfully directed by the Russo brothers (who cut their teeth, ironically, on Arrested Development and Community, two of my all time favorite TV comedies).  After the acclaim of Winter Soldier, the Russo’s were quickly hired back for Civil War and soon were tapped to give life to the Infinity War films too. Obviously, they’ve earned the trust of the top MCU brass.

So with Age of Ultron and Winter Soldier as the backdrop to this film, the storyline just makes a lot of sense. The violent climax of Ultron has pushed world governments to enact legislation to regulate the Avengers and “enhanced humans” in general. They want to have a United Nations board decide where and when the Avenges are allowed to intervene. This becomes even more necessary in their minds after a mistake in the opening sequence results in tragic collateral damage during an Avengers mission. Tony Stark, emotionally wounded as he is and dealing with the weight of guilt, sees this regulation as a good thing. He knows he is flawed and makes mistakes (he’s made many in his life) and sees his need for governance. Others, like Black Widow and War Machine, agree with him. Cap, on the other hand, has seen how flawed government oversight can be (hello, Hydra?). He is also very different than Tony Stark in that he has always been a boy scout, able to quickly judge right from wrong and trust himself to act accordingly. Cap worries that this act (the Sokovia Accords, named for the site of the Ultron battle) will deploy the team in the wrong situations and neuter them from intervening in the right ones at times. Early in the film, this conflict seems to be just a difference of opinion that needs more discussion. But then the reappearance of the Winter Solider as the main suspect in an assassination changes everything. Cap has a history with Bucky Barnes and believes that he’s been set up. He and Bucky get together and, with other heroes, work to get to the bottom of the mystery while Iron Man and company work to stop them under the auspices of the new law.

While this plot may seem complicated, it just works in a way that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice failed miserably. Every single character in this overstuffed film has a chance to speak his/her mind and explain the motivations for his/her actions. We understand while Cap rejects these new accords. We understand why Iron Man is willing to accept them. Other join sides based on their personal experiences and beliefs. It makes sense. Not to rag on BvS too much, but everything could have been resolved in that movie with a simple 20-minute conversation between the title characters. Here, those conversations actually happen and set up the conflicts in a real, organic way.

Oh, and Spiderman is in this movie. After Sony realized their re-booted series with Andrew Garfield was floundering in a big way, they struck a deal with Disney/Marvel to collaborate with the character, helping each other make more movies. They re-cast Peter Parker, tapping young Tom Holland in the role. It’s a super-cool addition to the movie and leaves audiences salivating for what’s to come for Spidey.

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The centerpiece of the film is an amazing, climatic battle royale at an airport that has to be seen to be believed. With a huge roster of heroes fighting each other, things can quickly get confusing. And while the Bourne-style camera work does disorient a bit during this sequence, it’s just fantastic all the way through. There’s just so much giddy wish-fulfillment here. From Ant-Man’s antics to Spiderman’s quips it’s just a joy.

Contrast that super-fun fight scene (where heroes just trying to stop each other) with a final fight scene later on in the film which feels ugly and sad because the stakes are more personal and it seems like something really bad is happening (and someone might actually get hurt or killed). It’s the point when the civil war hits home and the audience fully understands the weight of it.

Now, I started out by saying that the MCU has historically had a villain problem. Here, there is actually a villain behind the scenes and his plot sets up the central conflict between Cap and Iron Man. There’s a scene where he talks about his motivation and it’s pretty profound. In essence, he says that he has watched the Avengers from afar and realized that there are no forces equipped to defeat them. Sure, they have had their worthy challengers and Vision points out that their strength invites (and maybe breeds) challenge and that’s part of the problem. But this villain, Zemo, knows that the best way to defeat a team such at this is from within. Turn them against each other and watch them burn down. Maybe that seems cliche, but this is a real world tactic of evil. Terrorists often make it a goal to create chaos in their enemies’ homelands and cause their governments to bicker over how to respond. In the church, our enemy knows that a great way to bring down believers and churches is to turn them against each other. Like the tagline to the film says, “Divided we fall”. With this in mind, Zemo may secretly be one of the smartest, most formidable villains we’ve seen in the MCU. And he was played with a quiet rage by Daniel Bruhl.

I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but I like where we’re left when the credits roll. Things have changed yet again in this universe and our characters have changed, but they’ve also stayed the same. They’ve accepted that they are not always going to agree with each other and made peace with that realization. Complete agreement isn’t a prerequisite for friendship, unity and working together to accomplish something good. Agreement on the pillars under which you stand is essential, yes, but sometimes we believe that if we disagree on the smaller things we cannot even be friends. So in that sense, maybe Civil War is a statement on partisanship. In one scene there’s a speech from Sharon Carter (Agent 13) who, lifting from a Captain America speech in the comic books, says this:

“Compromise where you can. And where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right, even if the whole world is telling you to move. It is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say, no. You move.”

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That’s some powerful stuff.

The film is also certainly making a statement on loyalty as Cap nearly kills himself trying to save his friend Bucky even though Bucky committed horrible acts while under the mind control of the enemy. He accepts that Bucky has repented and wants to leave that behind even when almost no one else accepts that. Repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation exist and are worth fighting for in the mind of Captain America. And they should be for us too.


Looking over the history of the MCU movies, it’s clear to me that the Captain America films are the strongest in the series. It’s rare for a second film to fully live up to the first, but Winter Soldier did that. It’s almost impossible for a third film to surpass the 2nd, but I think they’ve actually done it. To me, still sitting in the afterglow, this is the best Marvel movie yet.

Okay, some stray observations on the film as a whole.

  • Yes, Spiderman is amazing in this film. We’re now on the 3rd actor to play the character in the modern era and it would be easy to be tired of it at this point. But there’s a fresh new energy to the character with a very young actor in the role. I’m very excited for Spiderman: Homecoming (but I don’t really like the title).
  • Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is so fun. Having an accomplished comedian in this universe adds so much to the dynamics between characters. And his airport antics were a huge highlight for me. I loved the first Ant-Man film and I can’t wait for the announced sequel: Ant-Man and The Wasp.
  • “Can you move your seat forward?” “No.” The Russo’s aren’t Joss Whedon, but they may be cut from the same cloth as far as the perfect humor injections. Or maybe that’s their sitcom pedigree showing through.
  • Speaking of sitcom pedigree, it’s good to see that The Dean exists in the MCU.
  • And I’m told that there is a Bluth staircar hidden in the airport scene somewhere! Second viewing, here I come!
  • Also, if Joss Whedon directed this, I think one element of the ending would have been very different. You know what I mean.
  • A tiny cameo for Alfre Woodard! Remember when she was shooting Borg with Captain Picard?
  • An extended appearance by one of my absolute favorite TV actors: Martin Freeman! I just love him. I hope he’s got more to do in future Marvel movies.
  • I mean, even Oscar-winner William Hurt is in this! Everyone wants to try an MCU movie at this point.
  • Black Panther was a totally unknown character to me, but they introduced him perfectly and his little arch was super cool. Motivated by revenge throughout the whole film, he comes to a point where he realizes what that can do to a person (by watching Iron Man fighting in the final melee) and makes peace within himself. Beautiful.
  • Vision’s sweater! I mean, seriously. I’d love more of The Vision in future films.
  • There are just so many small moments in this film that were amazing that I can’t list them all. For being such a huge movie, it managed to include so much nuance.
  • From here, we wait until November when we’ll be introduced to a brand new player in this universe: Doctor Strange!

Updated MCU Power Rankings:

Rank

Film

Grade

Year

1 Captain America: Civil War A+ 2016
2 The Avengers A+ 2012
3 Guardians of the Galaxy A+ 2014
4 Iron Man A 2008
5 Captain American: The Winter Soldier A 2014
6 Captain America: The First Avenger A 2011
7 Ant-Man A- 2015
8 Thor B+ 2011
9 Iron Man 3 B 2013
10 Avengers: Age of Ultron B 2015
11 Iron Man 2 B- 2010
12 Thor: The Dark World C 2013