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? 

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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

Civil_War_Final_Poster

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

Top Films of 2015

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I saw a bunch of movies this year that I really, really enjoyed. As we opened 2015, it seems like there were about a dozen highly anticipated films on the release schedule and many of them actually lived up the some of the hype. I expanded on a few in longer posts this year, but here are some quick thoughts on my favorites:

 

 

#10. The Good Dinosaur

So Pixar actually released two films this year. Inside Out, the creatively unique and universally praised masterpiece was first. Then in the fall, they dropped The Good Dinosaur, a throwback coming-of-age western with a species-swapped duo at the center. What? I thought it was very good, not great. It still had a lot of heart and some very touching scenes that Pixar is adept at creating. Still, critics and audiences haven’t latched onto it like they did to Inside Out. Sure, it’s no Toy Story 3, but it’s definitely not Cars 2. I recommend it.

#9. Avengers: Age of Ultron

The first Avengers film was just so much fun! For the sequel, they tried to raise the stakes and create a new super-scary villain for our heroes to fight. Marvel partially succeeded, but the whole film felt a bit messy and loud. In fact, the best parts of the film are the quiet scenes during the groups retreat to set up Act 3. I loved diving a little deeper into Hawkeye’s character and how they depicted his marriage and family life. Otherwise, the movie ended up being rather forgettable, sadly.

 

 

#8. Jurassic World

It was the highest earning movie of the year (until Star Wars was unleashed). Clearly people were ready for another movie from this stagnant franchise! Newly minted superstar actor Chris Pine leads a very entertaining action flick that gives nods to the original classic (while ignoring the dumb sequels) and also blazes slightly new territory.  I enjoyed it.

#7. Ant-Man

Against all odds, I liked Ant-Man better than Age of Ultron. Sure, it was sort of a re-hash of the Iron Man origin story, but Marvel excels with imbibing their stories with a light, fun feel. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, they created a very good blend here of action and humor. Edgar Wright’s influences are still there in shadow form, which is nice to see. I still wish he could have directed the whole things. Still, a very fun movie with replay value.

 

#6. The Martian

I loved, loved the book and was anxious to see it adapted by Ridley Scott, whom I consider a very good director. The movie didn’t disappoint and was packed with science, ingenuity, teamwork, wit and action. It’s a love letter to space travel engineering that actually has broad appeal. It was incredible that Andy Weir’s book hit all those marks and it’s incredible that the film was able to as well. Plus, the best use of 70’s pop music since Guardians of the Galaxy!

#5. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Wow, probably the best MI film of the series so far. Great action sequences, great spy story, good banter. And two standout performances from series newcomers Sean Harris and Rebecca Ferguson. Both of those two brought some fresh air to the film and were totally believable in their characters. I liked Ghost Protocol a lot, but Rogue Nation is the superior film.

#4. Mad Max: Fury Road

Many are calling Mad Max: Fury Road the best movie of the year. I think part of that is the perceived relevant cultural message of “feminism” that many people have drawn from the movie that is fanning those flames. It’s surely a very good movie and very entertaining. The visual are stunning and the story is simple yet relevant, yes. But I’m still annoyed that “feminism” now means just valuing women and seeing them as important enough to fight for. I think those things should also be seen as masculine views. Anyway, Max is a great ride.

#3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Remember Avatar and how the effects were awesome but the story was cookie-cutter? Remember how it was basically Pocahontas in space? Well, James Cameron could learn something from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The special effects here are often staggering in how good they look, but they are NOT over the top at all. And the story is a familiar trope in some ways, but it plays out so well that you fall right into the allegory of “different = bad = kill them”.

#2. Inside Out

I wrote up a long form review of this movie because I saw it in the theater with my kids and was deeply moved by the great storytelling and visuals. Plus, they had so many fun, creative concepts were thrown in here and there that were pitch perfect. Pixar had been on a bit of a downward trajectory with some stale sequel releases, but this one showed that they still have a solid brain trust that can come up with fantastic stories.

#1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A movie that probably needed no marketing to become a hit got the most saturated marketing campaign ever. The hype was ridiculous, but incredibly the movie lived up to it. This was easily my favorite movie of the year. Perfect, no, but it didn’t need to be. When the credits rolled, I was legitimately sad that there wasn’t more. So, so good.

Tales of the Tape – Part 2 – Video

tape never lies

I actually remember when our family bought our first VCR. I’m not sure what year it was, but it was circa 1986 I believe. It was a fairly large, front-loading model. JVC brand maybe? Anyway, my dad bought it was Best Buy in Rochester, MN. At the time, the local Best Buy actually had a video rental side business attached to the main store! So that became our go-to rental outlet for the first few years of VCR ownership.

At the time he bought the machine, my dad bought a VHS tape to go with it. And that tape, was Return of the Jedi! That tape and weather slipcase stayed around our house for probably 15 years (and it might still be in there somewhere). We watched that things so many times as kids that I have almost the entire movie memorized. When I recently watched it again with my kids, it all came flooding back to me.

But we were also an avid renting family. Best Buy closed their rental store eventually and we moved on to another store that I remember being called “Rave” at some point (but that went through various names over the years). This was the store that advertised an art contest when The Little Mermaid was released on VHS. My two art-inclined younger brothers entered and my mom convinced me to give it a shot too (even though I have never been a good visual artist). Of course, my art somehow won 3rd place in the contest. 1st place won the video tape of The Little Mermaid. I think 2nd place was the movie poster of the film. But third place was 5 free candy bars of my choice from their movie snack selection! I chose 5 Nestle Crunch bars.


Our VHS collection grew over the years as we acquired many Disney animated films and others as well. We added The Empire Strikes Back at some point – via garage sale, I believe. Our shelves were filling up. Since we didn’t have cable and were only able to pull in our one local station with rabbit ears (Rochester’s NBC affiliate KTTC), our entertainment options were pretty limited to VHS tapes.

That also meant that I quickly became the expert “heads cleaner” guy in our family. If you know what I’m talking about, then you also remember that horrible task of cleaning the heads on a VCR by using a special tape that you applied drops of cleaner fluid to and let run in the machine. It was the updated method of what my dad did manually with Q-tips to our audio cassette players.  It was tedious for sure, but it had to be done to improve the quality of the viewing. Still, it was secondary to the most hated VCR action: tracking. Pushing the up and down tracking buttons and hoping that they actually did something was a daily occurrence at our house as it was in every house that had a VCR and used it as much as we used ours.

At least twice, some friends from church who did have cable got a free preview of The Disney Channel and just taped everything and gave us the tapes. It was a little bizarre, like a grab bag of random Disney shows and weird low-budget movies. However, many of these became indelible parts of childhood for my brothers and me. One movie that was part of these tapes was “Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood”, later retitled “The River Pirates”, a coming of age story about a boy in the Louisana bayou that had been mashed up with The Goonies. Here’s the trailer to give you a taste of it’s terrible greatness:

And actually, the full movie is on YouTube too!


Maybe it was those Disney “mix tapes” that started us down the path of recording TV shows for later rewatching. I soon started checking the weekend paper for the week’s TV listings to identify if there were any movies being shown that we would like. If so, I made a note of it and made sure I had a tape ready to go on that night. If I was particularly on the ball, I would pause the tape on commercial breaks to edit out the ads. Most of the time, however, the commercial were left in to be fast forwarded through on rewatch. Of course, we were often lazy on rewatch and would sit through the commercials as well. And that meant that we memorized many early 90’s commercials. To this day, I can still hear the excited voice repeating that NBC’s “Dear John” was moving to Wednesday nights! One Sunday Night Movie that we watched on a loop for awhile featured tons of these commercials AND Corey Feldman. It was called EXILE and was actually a back-door pilot that never got picked up to series. It was pretty good though!

Around this time, being the nerd that I was, I figured out how to use the timer feature on our VCR so I didn’t have to worry that I’d forget to record the movie or show I wanted to watch. I could set the VCR to begin recording a certain channel at a certain time and then cue up the tape to the right spot to put the recording. It worked like a charm most of the time! This was also around the time that I discovered that blank VHS tapes could be recorded in 3 speeds: standard play (SP), Long Play (LP) and Extended Play (EP). A standard tape could hold about 2 hours in SP mode, but up to 6 or even 8 hours in EP mode. Of course, recording in EP mode meant a significant loss of quality. Still, if you wanted to save money on blank tapes and fit lots of shows and movies onto the tape, it was a no-brainer to us EP mode!

Armed with my knowledge of VCR operation, I soon began a somewhat crazy ongoing project. In the early to mid 90’s, I was a huge Star Trek fan. I was constantly checking out original series episode tapes from the public library and began buying a few too. Soon I became interested in the current Star Trek series – The Next Generation. However, it was aired in syndication and VHS tapes of episodes were hard to come by at rental stores. I would watch it at my grandparents house when I was there and that was about it. Soon I heard that Deep Space Nine was premiering too! Two Star Trek shows I couldn’t watch!

Then I made a discovery. KIMT, a CBS affiliate out of Mason City, Iowa, was airing both series on Saturday nights after the 10 o’clock news. And we could pick up that station at our house, but only if the TV and rabbit ears were on our dining room table. Thus began a long-running ceremony where, on Saturday nights, I would lug our 13 inch TV and VCR upstairs from the basement, place it on our dining room table, adjust the antenna until the reception was acceptable, reprogram the VCR clock (because I had unplugged the machine) and set a timer to record the two episodes in EP mode on a blank tape. I started building a library of barely watchable episodes of TNG and DS9, 6-8 to a tape, with scrawled titles on the label stickers. The worst was during the NCAA basketball tournament because the games were long and pushed back the newscast and everything that came after it too. My timer was powerless to predict these changes and I would end up with chopped episodes. It seems unfair that I can now watch any episode from those series on Netflix in HD at the push of a button.


Another aspect of the VCR was it’s ability to dub the mini tapes that our family camcorder used onto the more user-friendly VHS format. We had a number of home movies from our camcorder on our shelves growing up and these got plenty of replay over the years as well (yes, to the point of memorization).

Fast forward to my first year at college. I heard through the grapevine that some friends who worked at summer camp with me were making a movie that they would show everyone at our staff reunion in the winter. They were apparently shooting some scenes at my college – Northwestern College (now Northwestern University of St. Paul). For some reason, I hatched a plot with another camp co-worker to produce a “rival film” to also show at the reunion, but ours would be primarily shot at Bethel College (now Bethel University). We schemed up a weird story, bought props and costumes and shot the whole thing on two weekends with the help of a 3rd co-worker who came down for one of those weekends.

Now, once we had all the footage, it needed editing. I had no computer with enough power to edit a movie. I knew I had to do it the old fashioned way. I had to dub the scenes to VHS and re-order and cut them as I dubbed to cobble together a complete film. It was tricky and took almost an entire day of work. At some point, I had a revelation. I was dubbing audio and video from the camera to the VCR using RCA cables. If I wanted to, I pull the audio cable and dub in a different audio track along with the video from the camera. For me, that meant I could add music to a few scenes, as long as I didn’t mind not having the camera audio in the scene at all. It worked and I added a few musical elements to a few scenes. The finished product was a very, very weird movie with all sorts of stuff that I can’t believe we did. We showed it to our friends at the camp staff reunion and it was quite the experience.

What was the film about and what did it look and sound like? Well…. see for yourself.

I ended up make two more “movies” with friends from camp, but alas – those see to be lost to the ether.

I get a little nostalgic about these old, analog things. Those were simpler times, you know? Actually no, they were a lot more complicated. But still, I have many, many fond memories of the era of tape. Things that, I’m afraid, my boys will never quite understand.