ALBUM REVIEW | Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (50 Anniversary Remix – Deluxe Version)

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Ask any music fan worth his salt what the best album of all time is and chances are they would at least make mention of The Beatles’ seminal record: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Though it’s hard to pick the one Beatles record that stands above the rest, there’s clearly something special about hearing the band really coming into their own on this album. It’s a concept album (sort of), it stretches the creativity of the band and it showcases their musicality like never before. Now, on the album’s 50th birthday, a new remix edition has been released. Is it just a standard attempt to cash in on the anniversary or is this actually a worthwhile purchase? I’m happy to tell you that this new release is the new standard for listening to the album.

What is remixing anyway? Usually, a producer takes the original stems of the songs on an album (if they’re available), tweaks a few things to give it his or her own signature flavor and bounces it back out again. Remastering is taking the finished recordings and tweaking those without really working on individual tracks. The conversation that Beatles audiophiles often have centers around the mono versus stereo mixes. In the 60’s, mono was the preferred mix because most people didn’t have stereo capability at home. The Beatles focused their efforts on mono mixes for the most part (and definitely on Sgt Pepper). A stereo mix existed, but it was thought of as the weaker mix and not truly Beatles-approved. Even a remastered stereo version from recent years is not held in as high a regard as the original mono version. Enter Giles Martin.

Giles Martin is the son of George Martin, the original producer of almost every Beatles track you’ve ever heard. George Martin was a phenomenal musical mind and is often thought of as “the fifth Beatle” owing to his stellar contributions to the sound of the band — the orchestral elements in particular. When George recorded the Beatles, he was limited to the technology of the day, which was four track recording. He could only record 4 things at a time onto a tape. If more tracks were needed (and on this album, many more were needed), he would have to bounced the original four tracks into one and then record three more against that and then repeat the process. With each track bounced, a little fidelity is lost. Plus, if anyone wanted to do a proper remix, they had to actually locate the original, individual tape takes to split out all the stems. No one had ever been able to locate those tapes, until Giles did. Giles took all the original tracks and used those to produce a real, thoughtfully mixed stereo version of Sgt Pepper. Clearly incredible effort went into this project.

So how does it sound? Is there a difference? You better believe it. Listening to this version with headphones is like being in the room as the band is recording. It’s amazing. The sound is just so, so clear. The vocals are centered and crisp. The guitars are panned appropriately and sound so live. But the real difference is in the drums and bass. Giles boosted Ringo’s drums in ways that simply weren’t possible in 1967. In fact, since vinyl was the medium of the day, drums couldn’t be pushed to far up in the mix because heavy hits would actually cause the needle to bounce out of the groove on the record! Now the drums are mixed right into the songs and it’s a joy. The bass, likewise, gets a bump and the hidden notes are suddenly revealed. I’ve heard this record many, many times, but listening to it like this was a completely new experience.

Of course, the album comes in a deluxe version that also includes a bunch of bonus content. You get some other studio takes of various songs and even some instrumental tracks from the sessions. They probably aren’t for everyone, but I really appreciated them. One real treat was the orchestral instruments track from “She’s Leaving Home”. Gorgeous. And you can hear George Martin counting the players in.

So I’d highly encourage you to pick up or stream this new mix of Sgt. Pepper! You’ll be happy you did.

And if you want to dissect it a little more, there’s a great Beatles podcast called “Screw it, we’re just gonna talk about the Beatles” that took a deep-dive into the differences. It’s pretty great.

Libsyn Link:

 

Apple Podcast Link:

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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.

Concert Review | Sigur Ros at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis 9/29/16

Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros is probably my favorite live act. I’ve seen them 3 times and each time has been different and beautiful. My first experience was 10 years ago when they played the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis. They were one tour following the release of their album “Takk…” and they brought along their string quartet partners Amiina. Following that tour, Amiina struck out on their own, ending their longstanding tour partnership with Sigur Ros.

That meant that the next time I saw the band, in 2008 at the Orpheum again, the songs were doctored to cover the absence of the string parts. This tour was in support of their 5th studio album “Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust”, which had some “poppier” elements than their previous, pastoral work. As my review stated, they closed their main set with a bouncy rendition of “Gobbledigook” and a hurricane of confetti. 

My 3rd experience was in 2013 and it was a sharp departure as longtime Sigur Ros member Kjartan left the band following the release of “Valtari” and their next tour included some of the crushing, industrial sounds of their album “Kveikur”. They played the Roy Wilkins Auditorium on that tour and showcased a magnificent video board show and backing musicians. It was a huge performance.

For the last couple of years, the band has rested a bit and regrouped. Now a trio, the band decided that they would tour again this year, but without any supporting musicians. For probably the first time, they would perform only as a three-piece ensemble. The band made it clear that this tour was something special:

the month long run is comprised primarily of theater shows, marking the band’s most intimate tour in a decade. in keeping with the scale of the venues, the group will be performing without the string and brass sections that have been characteristic of recent performances, opting instead to focus on the core unit of the band itself. the shows will give the group a chance to road test new music, the first time since the tour leading up to the acclaimed ( ) album in 2002 that the band has performed new material ahead of album recording sessions. alongside this experimentation played out in public, the band is also planning on attempting new interpretations of old songs that haven’t been played in a very long time.

though the scale of the venues and band will be reduced, the live production will be characteristically stunning, designed again by the team behind their previous knights of illumination award-winning tour

With the promise of intimacy and new songs, I couldn’t resist shelling out the dough for another chance to see these guys. Especially at the Orpheum, which I believe is the perfect Twin Cities venue for them.

A quick word about the current state of online ticket sales: it’s a complete disaster. The band offered a code for the presale of tickets. They also offered a number of tiers of prices, including a package that included orchestra pit seats and other goodies for over $100 a ticket. Still, all tickets sold out almost immediately during the presale. I selected the lowest price tier and got decent seats in the balcony and bought them. Just for kicked, I then tried searching for tickets in the next highest price range to see what would happen. All tickets were gone. Of course, scalper tickets appeared online almost instantaneously after the presale. Ticketmaster needs to get their act together on this or bands need to find alternate channels for fans to get to their shows without getting scammed.


It was a gorgeous autumn evening when we ventured downtown for the show. The Orpheum was lit up as usual and fans were lingering outside, taking selfies with the marquee and smoking. There were little postings throughout the lobby stating that the show would begin promptly at 8:30pm, a subtle urging for people to find their seats before showtime. After scoping out the merch table, we went upstairs and located our seats in the balcony. The views in the Orpheum are great from almost every seat and we were pleased with our vantage point.

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With no opening act, the stage was empty and ambient music was playing overhead. The stage was dressed with semi-transparent curtains on all four sides, including the front of the stage. What looked like black PVC pipe constructions formed a sort of lattice around the edges telescoping to the back and creating a tunnel-like illusion from head on.

Soon the ambient music surged a bit and the anticipatory energy in the room surged with it. Still, there empty seats around us. Then the lights went down and the show began. Throughout the first few songs, people were still being ushered to their seats and talking as they got settled. “See, he plays his guitar with a bow!” shouted one person nearby as the band played. *sigh* Moving on.

The band opened their set with their newest, unreleased song simply entitled “Á“. It was a quiet number that wouldn’t feel out of place on Valtari. It was a somber start to the show, especially when followed by two more sedate numbers. Most of the crowd was rapt with attention, pulled into the sonic textures and mesmerized by the amazing light show set to each of the songs. Jonsi did have one vocal flub as he plucked a wrong note on this guitar and his voice went with the sour note. He’s human, after all. Soon the band took the energy up with some of their well-known loud numbers (Daudalagid and Glosoli) before closing the first set with a lesser known B-side from years ago called “Smaskifa”. It was a calculated bell curve of a set.

h/t to Lacey Hunt on Facebook

As I took a breath, I thought about how different this show really was than the others I’d seen. The 4th member of the band here was the light rig, which really added to the songs in a very tangible way. I also realized that the absence of Kjartan left a bit of an instrumental void that was mostly filled by Orri, the drummer. Jonsi and Georg stayed in their lanes for the most part and it was Orri who was tasked with frantic drumming and also pensive keys – sometimes on the same song. But it was working! Three guys, with some backing track help, were making a lot of noise!

It was in the beginning of the 2nd set that the missing member was acutely felt, however. Returning to the slightly redressed stage, the trio took up positions bunched together towards the back of the stage. They were surrounded on all sides by these transparent curtains and projections danced all around them. This gave the appearance that they were very tall and almost swimming in the projected smoke and cloud images. They played another new song “Ovedur” from this position as Orri drummed on an electric pad. Then they went into a crowd favorite from their catalog: “Staralfur”, made semi-famous for its inclusion in the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The album version of this song features a gorgeous string arrangement as its sonic backbone, which they didn’t have. They did have Orri playing the shimmering piano part under Jonsi’s bowed guitar and Georg’s rhythm acoustic. Still, it didn’t feel quite the same and actually felt a little rhythmically off-kilter at one moment. Then as they were fading the song to a quiet finish, an abrupt accidental piano “plink” rang out. Oops.

After this interstitial arrangement, the band again took their original places and proceeded to bring down the house with the next two incredible songs. As the musicians hammered away at their instruments, the screens danced with color and light and strobe lights accented the snare and tom hits, blinding and thrilling the audience. This 1-2 punch of Saeglopur and Ny Batteri was an epic highlight of the night. The set oscillated again from there, taking a breather for a couple of quiet songs and cleansing the audience’s auditory palette. The final 3 songs brought the night to a triumphant close with the traditional closer Popplagid as the band frantically played and the light rigs really let loose (Orri even had to remove his shirt between songs). As the Jonsi and Georg threw their guitars to the ground and walked off stage with Orri, feedback and reverb still throbbing, the crowd leapt to its feet in euphoria. The boys returned to the stage twice for bows and “takk”s before venturing back into the darkness and the netherworld we all assume they reside in.

h/t to Lacey Hunt on Facebook

Much has been said about the music of Sigur Ros. Many, including the band themselves, talk about how the music is inextricably linked to their home country of Iceland. Iceland is a unique place with desolate, beautiful landscapes and rich, almost mythical local legends. There’s a mystique to it and a sense of magical unknown. The language is a beautiful nordic volley of consonants. And all of these descriptors can easily be applied to the music of Sigur Ros. Most of their songs are sung in Icelandic, with a healthy number sung in the proprietary invented language of “Hopelandic”, so 99% of the audience probably has no idea what the words are to these songs. But it doesn’t matter. The music is arresting and beautiful and the intensity with which it is delivered seals you in.

During intermission, a middle-aged man behind me commented, “This music, like, destroys my soul. And then recreates it.” And I think this gets at another thing that draws people into the music of Sigur Ros – it has a spiritual quality. That otherworldly nature of the sounds reminds us of heaven. It stirs up souls and elicits the kind of emotion that a good worship song might do in church. That’s another reason why the Orpheum suits this band far better than “The Roy”. It feels like an ancient, ornate church sanctuary.

Sigur Ros is, without a doubt, the best live band I’ve ever seen. Personnel and show design may change, but these guys and these songs are something special. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Setlist:

Were you there too? Have you seen Sigur Ros elsewhere? Share your thoughts!

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

 

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.

captain-america-civil-war-spider-man-shield-official

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.”

steverogers

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

ALBUM REVIEW | Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

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When mourning the loss of a relationship (whether by death or by conflict), people often find themselves looking backwards first. They comb through the experiences of that relationship and find moments that seemed pedestrian at the time, but now take on a new weight and significance in light of the end of the relationship. An off-the-cuff turn of phrase, a passing glance, a subtle smile or the weather on a memorable day. After plumbing these depths of history we can begin to look ahead and grapple with the future (with all its fears and hopes). With their 9th album, Thom Yorke and his bandmates in Radiohead have delivered an album that seems to encapsulate this ritual of pressing into loss and letting it affect you before turning to what’s next.


It’s been 5 years since we last had an LP from Radiohead. After their triumphal release of their 7th LP In Rainbows, the band returned 4 years later with their 8th – The King of Limbs. After the rock and roll of Rainbows, TKOL was a marked downshift. It was a sleepy, somewhat detached collection of songs that just wasn’t as compelling in comparison to the rest of their recent work. At the time of release, I speculated that the album may be a grower and more suited for autumn than the actual February 2011 release date. Or maybe I’m too seasonal in my listening. In any case, LP8 didn’t have the staying power of most Radiohead albums.

So after touring in 2012, the band took their now-traditional hiatus while sporadically putting in work on LP9 here and there. They had played some newer songs on the tour that many expected would become part of a new album down the road. But mostly, band members did their own things. Thom Yorke worked on some solo material that became Tomorrow’s Modern BoxesHe also participated in a supergroup of sorts with producer Nigel Goodrich and Flea called Atoms for Peace and released an album called Amok. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood, meanwhile, created the soundtracks to a number of films, honing his arrangement craft with strings and choirs. Even drummer Phil Selway put out a solo album during this time (Weatherhouse).

Thom Yorke

Last August, Yorke announced that he was separating from partner Rachel Owen. They pair had been together for 23 years and has two children together. It was reported that the separation was amicable and they valued their years together as people and artists.

Against the backdrop of these last 5 years arrives LP9 – A Moon Shaped Pool. 


Radiohead always manages to create fast-moving buzz for their albums in creative ways. This time around, they began by completely removing their internet presence. Their Twitter account went blank, their Instagram went blank and their website slowly faded away as users furiously refreshed. After a few days, they were back with cryptic teasers which led up to the release of a music video for a new single: Burn the Witch.

It’s a great lead single that telegraphs some of the texture to expect on the new album. It’s also not a brand new song, but one that has allegedly been around since the Kid A era. Indeed, the title appears on the cover art for 2003’s Hail to the ThiefYorke teased the song a few times over the years as well, but the song was never given any public exposure. Here it appears fully formed, driven by a pensive and percussive string section throughout. Greenwood’s soundtrack efforts and influences are evident as it evokes Bernard Herrmann’s skin-crawling work on Hitchcock’s Psycho. The video helps place the lyrics into the context of the ability of some leaders to influence their constituents to support horrific injustice. Very much on point for Yorke and company.

A few days later, they dropped yet another song and video, this one entitled Daydreaming. 

I like Burn the Witch, but I love Daydreaming. This song lies clear across the spectrum from Burn the Witch and finds Yorke at his paranoid best. With the video came the announcement of the new LP and also introduced some of the central core of the album: heartbreak. Yorke warbles “Dreamers, they never learn” over pensive piano and finishes the song with a reversed vocal line that seems to work out to “half of my life”. Attempting to crack the code a bit, Yorke is 47 years old and his relationship with Owen lasted 23 of those years. Amicable separation or not, A Moon Shaped Pool is, at least in part, a breakup album. Now that the full LP has dropped, we are free to dig deeper. And it’s a long way down.


Opening with the first two singles in respective order, the album continues on to visit other sites within the charred landscape of emotional and psychological trauma. Through it all, Yorke evokes images of darkness, rain, isolation and frustration. As the video for Daydreaming depicts, Yorke is moving through room after room and finding no place where he is comfortable staying until the end. And that comfortable place is a dark cave with a small fire burning as he closes his eyes. The video was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who has collaborated with Johnny Greenwood on a number of films including the Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood.

That film score sound is all over this album as Greenwood injects his influence in all the right places. As someone who adores the song Nude from In Rainbows because of the lush strings and pastoral beautythis element of orchestration makes me incredibly happy. The album also distinguishes itself from recent Radiohead albums by featuring lots of organic, acoustic instrumentation. Acoustic guitar is heavily featured on a couple of songs in particular and Yorke often favors somber piano arpeggios in his music.

Highlights on the album include Ful Stop, which does little to veil the jilted lover motif – opening with the line “You really messed up everything”. This song has been featured live for a few years since 2012 and has become a fan favorite.

The midpoint of the album is Glass Eyes, a confessional song that’s something of a distant cousin to Adel’s 2016 hit Hello, beginning with “Hey, it’s me. I just got off the train” and meandering to “I feel this love turn cold”.

Identikit is another 2012 tour song brought to studio-life. Yorke painfully sings, “Did I see you messing around? I don’t want to know.” This song is also noteworthy for including an honest-t0-goodness guitar solo from Jonny Greenwood. It seriously feels like years since we’ve had that!

By the time The Numbers rolls around, it feels like something brand new. A folksy and almost bluesy tune that will remind listeners of Led Zeppelin or Neil Young. Lyrically, this song takes a break from grieving a relationship and focuses on expressing anger over society’s failure to do more to combat climate change. Yorke is a noted activist for peace and this song shows that his activism extends to climate change as well.

Finally, the album concludes in a wonderful way: a studio version of True Love Waits, a song that dates all that way back to 1995! It’s been played live frequently over the years and even appeared on a live EP in 2001. As a crowd favorite, the band has often been asked when a proper studio recording would be released. In fact, around the time of that live EP, the band did attempt a studio recording, but it was eventually scrapped for some reason. In 2012, producer Nigel Goodrich spoke up about the song in an interview, saying,

“To Thom’s credit, he needs to feel a song has validation, that it has a reason to exist as a recording. We could do ‘True Love Waits’ and make it sound like John Mayer. Nobody wants to do that.”

We can infer, then, that Yorke has validated the 20-year-old song and given it a reason to exist as a recording. A Moon Shaped Pool contains many old songs that have been given validation and a reason to exist now where they may not have been imbued with that quality to begin with. I see Yorke looking back over his songwriting from the past 23 years and reading new meanings into the words. Where True Love Waits kicked around for a long time, it finds ultimate fulfillment now in 2016 in light of Yorke’s station in life. The deep melancholy that hovers over the piano is so much more arresting today that it was in 2001’s live version. The song has been gutted, dissected and reanimated into this beautiful thing. It’s a perfect close to a beautiful and sad collection of songs. Radiohead has always been a patient band, taking their sweet time creating their albums and waiting for the perfect moment to complete the vision of a single song.

A Moon Shaped Pool is a complex album. It’s not just that the layers of musical experimentation as many and varied, it’s that it examines the complexity of human emotions and doesn’t shy away from the fearful places. It presents a protagonist who often holds the world at arms length, paranoid about and confused by most societal constructs, but who is devastated by lost love just like all of us. Beneath all the glitchy beats and cryptic linguistics, we find gentle strings and voices crying for comfort saying “Just don’t leave. Don’t leave.” True love waits. True love hangs on through the storms. When it doesn’t, we realize it wasn’t true love at all. And that is what’s truly heartbreaking. That’s what causes us to reexamine everything. Where does Yorke land in all this? Perhaps in the closing lines of Desert Island Disk: “You know what I mean. Different types of love … are possible.”

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.

Dueteronomy 31:8

 

[Jesus said to them], and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:20b


A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead was released on May 8th, 2016.

Get the album here.

Movie Reviews – Triple Feature

I had the house to myself this weekend as my family was traveling. I spent my days working on projects and my evenings catching up on some genre movies I’ve been meaning to watch. So here are my quick-hit reviews. They may contain some spoilers. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

So the first reboot from a few years ago, “Rise of…”, was better than it really had any right to be. The Caesar ape character stole the show and it was a compelling story overall. So in this sequel, we skip ahead a number of years and the opening credits paint us a not-so-rosy picture of a world ravaged by a new plague: simian flu. The population has been decimated and a small band of people are holed up in San Francisco. But we don’t start with them, we start with the growing colony of advanced apes that live in the woods near SF. They are led by Caesar, the first advanced ape from the previous film. He has a family and the colony is thriving and working together.

The central conflict begins when a band of humans from the city venture into ape territory looking for a dam that they hope to activate in hopes of bringing power back to their city. During the initial confrontation, one of the men shoots an ape. Distrust between the two groups grows quickly. However, Caesar and the human Malcolm forge a friendship as they work together to fix the dam. But the peace is short-lived. Another ape, Koba, tries to assassinate Caesar and start a war with the humans.

The effects in this film are fairly staggering. In this age of motion capture, this is one of the rare examples of the technology done right. The apes are fantastic and look absolutely real. The fight scenes are well done too.

What grabbed me most was the story and the underlying themes of war and the heart of man (and ape) for violence and power and distrust of “the other”. It’s easy to immediately dislike those that are different, especially when you have experienced pain in the past from similar people. Hatred and war often spring from distrust and lust for power. Koba’s belief that humans are all bad compels him to strike out at them, but it’s his lust for power that completely consumes him and pushes him to attack even his own. This story does these themes infinitely better than Avatar, another mo-cap heavy movie, did.  Just a really powerful and engaging film.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Some have called it the best film of 2015. It’s a continuation of George Miller’s Mad Max series that has been stagnant for 30 years now. With Tom Hardy in the titular role, this film opens with a jarring sequence that sets up the horror of this post-apocalyptic landscape and re-introduces the character by putting him in dire straights.

Max is captured by a colony ruled by an evil “king” named Immortan Joe. Those people he rules are beholden to him because he controls an underground water source. His thralls believe him to be a god and that death on his behalf is rewarded with new life. Max is a slave who provides blood transfusions for Joe’s fighters. But when one of Joe’s fuel run drivers goes rogue and makes off with his slave brides, Joe dispatches his fighters to bring them all back. Max is mounted like a hood ornament on this wild pursuit.

What follows is a frantic chase film that almost never stops to catch its breath. While “Dawn of…” above was a triumph of CGI, this film is a victory for practical effects. The chases and mobile fight scenes are amazingly orchestrated. The entire look of the film is gorgeous. Even the creative costumes and makeup are part of the aesthetic.

Much has been made about this film being a “feminist” action movie – due in large part to the great character of Furiosa (the driver who is on a mission to save these slave girls). Max and Furiosa form a bond as they both fight for the survival of the girls. And yes, Max defers some of the fighting to Furiosa and that image of female empowerment is great. But are we really now defining “feminism” as simply valuing women and not wanting to see them exploited?

There’s a lot of masculinity here too. Max goes off to fight for the women alone at one point and tells them to keep going. Or how about the reformed slave boy who begins to fall for one of the “brides” and ends up sacrificing his life to save hers. That’s the utmost expression of love (especially in the Christ-like, husband role that the Bible talks about). And, yes, it’s a refreshing twist that Max and Furiosa never lock lips in the film. This wasn’t their love story, it was a story of liberating the slaves and overthrowing evil power. Very cool film with some Gospel undergirding.

Ant-Man

When Marvel announced an Ant-Man film, I thought “I don’t care that much about Ant-Man”. But then they announced the Edgar Wright would direct it. That got my attention. I love, love Edgar Wright and his directing style. From the TV show “Spaced” to “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” to the Cornetto trilogy, he is a great director. I was instantly excited to see this film. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Wright left the project in the middle of production. Word on the street was that the studio wanted too much say in the movie and he decided he didn’t like his vision encroached on. So Marvel brought in Peyton Reed to finish it off. My excitement returned to pre-Wright levels. It was just another Marvel movie as far as I was concerned.

Marvel also had made a habit recently of trying other genre templates in their movies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a sort of riff on a cold war, espionage thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy was a sci-fi romp. Ant-Man, we were told, was a heist film. That sounded pretty cool.

So anyway, the movie opens with a great scene of Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man) sparring with SHIELD leadership in the late 80’s about his tech. We see Howard Stark and Peggy Carter (!!!) and are introduced to the idea of reducing the space between atoms to shrink objects. Fast forward to our hero, Scott Lang, in prison for robbing a corrupt millionaire’s house and crashing his expensive car into his pool. Scott is getting out of prison and giving up his life of crime to be there for his young daughter. Of course, the old heist trope is brought in: one last, sure-thing job.

Through a series of events, Scott is “hired” by Hank Pym to use Pym’s Ant-Man suit to break into his old laboratory and steal the shrinking tech that new company head Darren Cross (played perfectly by Corey Stoll) is about to sell to the highest bidder. Oh, and Hank Pym’s daughter Hope is part of the plan, but miffed that Pym won’t let her wear the suit and do the mission. Sidebar: Evangeline Lilly is really great in the role of Hope. Really, all the casting is note-perfect here as in almost every Marvel movie.

This film was great. Chock full of fun heist stuff, but always very self-aware and never over the top. Paul Rudd’s comedic timing and characterization is on point here as he sticks his foot in his mouth countless times. It’s shades of Chris Pratt’s Starlord, which is always a good thing. Scott Lang’s criminal gang is perfect with their comedy relief on countless occasions as well. And the final fight scene on a kid’s play table was amazing. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention that this movie tackled the whole “he can also control ants” thing amazingly well. It was a huge part of the whole thing and never felt shoehorned in.

And the best part? There’s still a lot of Edgar Wright in this movie. Fun musical cues are found in weird places. Quick cuts and lip-synced flashbacks were, perhaps, the most obvious calling cards that showed off his style. I was so happy to find those things. #TeamEdgar

So yeah, this movie was better than I expected. It’s nice that Marvel puts out giant, cosmic, global adventure movies like Age of Ultron, but is also willing to tell somewhat smaller stories like this one. Very, very fun.

Movie Review | Inside Out

Pixar Studios has built itself a very strong resume over the years, becoming known as a place that champions well-crafted stories and original ideas. Their first film, Toy Story, has become a classic and launched  CG-animated film standard that is heavily favored in cinemas today. Their early string of great films, however, has become slightly frayed over the last few years as they fell victim to the box-office allure of safe sequels. Pixar seemed to eschew their value of original story ideas in favor of retreading bankable characters. Now to be fair, Toy Story 2 and 3 are amazing films that I would regard as near-perfect sequels to the original in that they expanded the scope of world they had built while also deepening the characters who inhabited that world. Cars 2 and Monsters University, on the other hand, just seemed to be flights of fancy that existed for the sole purpose selling more merch. The stories were bland and lacked the depth that the previous films from Pixar were known for.

Somewhere in there, Pixar did try an original idea when they released Brave, but even that film just seemed to be missing something. That missing element may have been due to the troubled journey the film took to the screen which involved the director being fired midway through production. But to their credit, the studio did not give up and is now showing a renewed desire to create and not just to clone.


Which brings me to Inside Out, the newest Pixar film. This film comes to us from the mind of Minnesota-native Pete Docter, the man who also brought us the amazing Pixar film Up and the classic Monsters, Inc. Docter has shown that he can spin together amazingly creative concepts into deeply affecting stories. Everyone knows that the first 20 minutes of Up are some of the most emotionally resonant minutes ever animated. And the conclusion to Monsters, Inc. often gives me goosebumps (“Kitty!”). So you know that you’re going to get much more than a childish cartoon romp from Mr. Docter here too.

The concept of Inside Out is also unique. We meet a baby girl named Riley and are introduced to the 5 emotions that share control of her mind: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. Those 5 emotions watch Riley’s experiences unfold and decide which of them should take over the controls for which moments. As the film opens, we’re given a whirlwind tour of how all this works and how Riley’s mind isn’t just a control room, it’s a vast world of islands, bridges, trains, rooms, stages, and libraries.

Now Riley is 12 years old and has had a life full of joy and goofiness. She loves her family, her friends, her hockey team, and her home in Minnesota. Enter the central conflict: her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley’s young life is thrown into chaos and her emotions struggle to cope with all the changes. Memories that once gave Riley joy, now seem to be getting tainted with sadness. The Joy character (voiced by Amy Pohler) has always been the de facto leader of the mind, but Sadness (voiced by the perfectly cast Phyllis Smith) feels compelled to become more active. The interplay between Joy and Sadness is what propels the story as they go on a quest to help Riley through this hardship. They are forced to traverse the wide world of Riley’s mind in order to get back to headquarters (get it?) and help their girl. Their journey takes them through many amazingly creative areas like The Dream Studios and Abstract Thought. They meet “mind workers” and other surprise characters along the way. They (and the audience) learn about many concepts of psychology as they pick their way through the twisty corridors of memories and ride the Train of Thought. It’s zany and wonderful and, above all, so clever.

It’s amazing, really, to see the mind of a young girl portrayed this way. You see how, when we’re young, our emotions are strong and don’t often work together well. We deal almost completely in absolutes, blacks and whites. As we grow up, our emotions settle in a bit and work together to build our personalities. Here, we see Riley’s pain as she struggles to grow up after having almost everything that previously defined her ripped away. Her friends are back in Minnesota, her hockey team is back in Minnesota and her parents are stressed and finding it hard to help their growing daughter cope. Meanwhile, in her mind, her emotions are fighting with each other, trying to figure out what they should do – how they should feel – about all of this. When everything is changing, what can they hang on to? What will Riley be like on the other side of this conflict? Will she stubbornly lash out and become a bitter young woman or will she face her fears and sadness and become stronger?


Inside Out was a fantastic film and I agree that it serves as a proverbial “return to form” for Pixar. And while it may be the first Pixar film that did not come in #1 at the box office on its opening weekend, it did earn $91.1 million, which is the biggest opening ever for a non-sequel film. Let’s hope that Pixar (and parent company Disney) still view this as a big win and a big validation for fresh ideas. In the midst of a production slate that is rumored to include Finding Dory, Cars 3Toy Story 4 and The Incredibles 2, Pixar should know that it’s the “new” that makes them the best animation studio out there.

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

– Anton Ego (Ratatouille)


I saw this film with my two boys (3 and 5) and much of the nuance of the story surely went over their heads. They asked numerous times when the film was done who Riley was, which was … kind of a main plot point. However, they definitely understood what each of the 5 emotion characters stood for and what that meant. We had conversations with them afterward about whether they ever “let Anger be the driver sometimes”. And although my 3-year-old insisted that he doesn’t have little creatures in his head, only a brain, he grasped that sometimes he lets Sadness take over when he doesn’t need to. Having a cartoon springboard to talk about emotional health with my two young sons in an incredible opportunity.

And even though my concrete-thinking boys point out that they don’t have creatures in their heads, they tell me that they have Jesus in their hearts. The Holy Spirit indwells Christians and that’s not just a clever story concept. We have another voice within us as we process the world around us and react to change and hardship. What a privilege that is! I pray that as my boys get older they won’t just mature emotionally (though I pray earnestly for that!), but that they mature spiritually and bear the fruit of the Spirit within them. Because while having mature emotions may prepare them for … gulp… puberty, having a mature faith will prepare them for life beyond this one.

Movie Review | Avengers: Age of Ultron

When you have small children and two jobs, it’s quite difficult getting out to see first-run movies. Thankfully, I have a friend in the same phase of life and he and I have an understanding that we will find a way to see each new comic book movie together. We’ve been doing this for a few years now. So this holiday weekend we finally got out to see the new Avengers movie… at 9:40am on a Monday while our kids played together with our wives. Have I mentioned how amazing my wife is?

Anyway, going into this film I had tried my best to put an embargo on plot information and reviews about the film. One thing I did know, however, was that this film nearly broke the great Joss Whedon. Yes, following the completion of this movie, Joss tapped out of the next installment of the series and, it seems, will no longer direct any Marvel Cinematic Universe movies at all. Whedon’s perfectionism, by his own admission, is a blessing and a curse. He is decidedly his own worst critic, never quite satisfied with his work even if he has poured his heart and soul into it. So what was it about this film that pushed him to the edge?

A brief synopsis of the plot: The Avengers are avenging, but Tony Stark (Iron Man), being a very forward thinker, realizes that they need to work out a retirement plan before they actually need one. He’s secretly been working on something called “Ultron” that would be an artificial intelligence system to basically build a metaphorical shield around the planet. Stark is still shaken by what he saw at the end of the first Avengers film: a vast alien army ready to invade earth. Now, the gang busts a HYDRA base and ends up with some intel about an AI project HYDRA was working on. Stark and Bruce Banner take that tech and spin it into the Ultron project. They walk away as the program is running tests. It becomes operational and the villain Ultron is created. The rest of the movie is angst, fighting, and eventual victory… but at a cost.

The challenge with a team-up movie like this is to give each character a good arc, tell a good story, introduce new characters and set plotlines for the next few Marvel films too. That’s the challenge that Whedon took on and the one that ultimately burned him out.  But, as I said before, Whedon is too hard on himself. This movie is actually very, very good at all those bullet points!

What sets Marvel Studios so far above the pack right now in comic book movies is their character stable. All of the featured heroes are extremely well cast, well drawn and well scripted. And this film actually does have something for every one of them to do. Stark is note perfect, as always. Captain America is true blue, but willing to be self-depreciating too. Thor could be a heavy and alien character, but he’s given levity and charm. Hulk is a joy to watch smashing things, but this film spends a lot of time plumbing the depths of his character and exploring the torturous truth about what he really is. Black Widow, the lone female Avenger to this point, is tough as nails, but confronts some dark truths about her past that impact her future as well.

And then there’s Hawkeye. Hawkeye was probably the most disposable character up to this point. He spent most of the last film under the spell of Loki and didn’t get much to do apart from that. Here, he may have the most perfect storyline of them all. His secret is that he has a farm, a wife and 2 kids with another on the way. And in a way, this reveal to the team is the galvanizing sequence that grounds them and enables them to press on. But it’s Hawkeye’s interactions with his family that, for me, were the most memorable scenes from the film. Hawkeye is … just a guy and he and his wife confront the insanity of the fact that he’s on the team with these superheroes, these “gods” and he’s actually indispensable to that team.

Okay, so the team is cool. Then there are the new characters. We get the introduction of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Their backstory is fine and their arcs are pretty good. There’s not too much else to say other than Scarlet Witch will have much more to do in future films. The Vision also appears here in a very cool way as it relates to Ultron’s story. And Paul Bettany is just a great actor and his limited screen time here is all perfect.

Ultron himself is a compelling villain, but definitely not a charismatic as Loki in the first film. Part of that is the fact that he’s a robot and can’t emote quite as well because of that fact. Still, his creation and motivation play on real-life fears about artificial intelligence, cyber security and preemptive strike war philosophy. Many of these are themes that have been well-explored in other sci-fi films, so maybe that’s why his plot doesn’t land quite as hard as Loki’s.

What I did love was a line for Captain America in the film as he talks to Tony Stark and says “Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die.” In fact, the central conflict of the film is actually more about Stark vs. Rogers. There are two scenes where Stark’s aspirations go against Cap’s better judgment (foreshadowing the next big film Civil War). Those scenes are very, very good as the leaders debate on how protection should be accomplished.

So in the end, this was a great movie. It didn’t quite reach the euphoric heights of the first Avengers, but that may be because the first on was such a novel concept at the time. This one aimed higher, but got better results by going deeper.  As I said, the real gold in this franchise is the characters and we are left with much more love for them after this conflict. Many got hurt, many were broken, and the audience actually felt it. And that’s something that Whedon should be very proud of.

What’s next for Whedon? It sounds like he’ll get back to basics a bit and do something wholly original to satisfy the artist in him. I can’t wait.