Thursday, April 7, 2016

10 great moments from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

After years of waiting, a new Star Wars movie arrived in December 2015. I saw it seven times in the theater, and one day Target will actually deliver my preorder of the Blu-ray.

So while I wait for that to arrive (Update: it FINALLY arrived on Friday), giving me the key to untold treasures in the special features, I thought I'd run down my 10 favorite moments from the seventh episode of the Star Wars saga.

10. "This will begin to make things right."

The great Max von Sydow delivers the movie's first line, giving gravitas to an important but brief role in the movie. I would call it a thankless role except for the fact that it's freaking Max von Sydow. He shares a brief exchange with Poe Dameron and comments on General Leia Organa: "General? To me, she's royalty."

And depending on what you believe, the first line of the film has an extra layer of meaning. "This will begin to make things right" certainly refers to his character's desire to bring balance to the Force. However, you can also read it as a promise from J.J. Abrams and company that this new Star Wars movie will "make things right" in terms of the poorly received prequel trilogy.

9. Kylo's rage

When kids throw a tantrum, they usually lie on the floor and kick their legs or hold their breath until they get their way. But that wouldn't be good enough for Kylo "Ben Solo" Ren, son of two of the galaxy's greatest heroes.

When confronted with bad news, the Darth Vader fanboy ignites his lightsaber and goes to town on the nearest wall. This happens twice in the movie, showing the villain's unhinged nature and poor control of his emotions.

8. "This is not how I thought this day was gonna go."

When Han Solo and Chewie find the Millennium Falcon ("Chewie, we're home" gets an honorable mention), they also encounter a pair of stowaways in Rey and Finn. Before long, they also confront another threat: a pair of intergalactic gangs fed up with Solo's swindling ways.

After some destructive beasts called rathtars get loose on their freighter, Han and company climb aboard the Falcon. And when one of the creatures tries to swallow the cockpit whole, Han admits he didn't see any of this coming.

7. Threepio ruins the moment

For a droid trained in etiquette and protocol, C-3PO sure doesn't have any manners, interrupting the touching reunion between Han and Leia. They haven't seen each other in who knows how long (definitely years, unclear how many), but before they can share a moment together, Threepio barges right in and ruins it.

But really, you've gotta love it as a Star Wars fan because it's pure, clueless Threepio, who's more concerned about pointing out his red arm than letting Han and Leia share a bittersweet moment. He finally gets a clue, however, and walks off.

6. "Who talks first? You talk first, I talk first?"

Need a spiritual successor with the swagger of Solo and the piloting skills of a Skywalker? You'll find him in Poe Dameron, an awesome addition to the Star Wars universe. Poe, sent to Jakku to retrieve a map that could lead to the missing Luke Skywalker, gets captured by the First Order.

When Kylo Ren confronts him, Poe doesn't look one bit scared. He's a little unsure about the protocol for questioning, however.

5. Back on the Falcon

One of the quieter moments in the film shows Han Solo in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, pausing for just a moment to reclaim his beloved ship.

The melancholy smile on his face tells you he's missed his baby and couldn't be happier to get her back.

4. BB-8's got your back

BB-8 is awesome. That is all.

3. The weapon of a Jedi/the Force awakens

After Kylo Ren defeats Finn in a lightsaber battle (Kylo was totally toying with Finn until the "traitorous" former Stormtrooper managed a lucky shot), the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker sits tantalizingly in the snow. Kylo, obsessed with Darth Vader iconography, wants it so bad.

But a funny thing happens on the way to galactic domination: the lightsaber flies past his head and ends up in Rey's steady hand. When the music swells here and I realize I'm seeing the rise of a powerful Jedi, I get chills every time.

2. "That's not how the Force works!"

It's safe to say this is the exchange my wife and I have quoted the most. We even bought shirts that say "that's not how the Force works." It's just the perfect setup: Finn says he worked in sanitation at Starkiller Base, leaving Han to wonder how in the world they'll bring down the shield and preserve the Resistance.

Han: "People are counting on us. The galaxy is counting on us."

Finn: "Solo, we'll figure it out. We'll use the Force!"

Han: "That's not how the Force works!"


Han: "Oh, really? You're cold?"

1. Luke!

I stayed away from major spoilers for the movie, but I couldn't help but notice the absence of Luke Skywalker. He wasn't on the poster, he didn't have an action figure, and he was basically nowhere to be seen.

Then the opening crawl cleared things up: "Luke Skywalker has vanished."

I had no idea he'd end up being the film's MacGuffin! Luke is the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant; the sought-after object that propels the plot. When Rey makes her way up "Stairmaster Island" (hat tip to my brother-in-law, Tom), she encounters a solitary figure at the edge of the cliff. Jedi Master Luke Skywalker is back!

Rey reaches out with the lightsaber that once belonged to Luke and his father. What's he feeling at that moment? Sadness? Grief? Loss? Regret? Hope? Love?

I believe it's all of these things.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Thoughts on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This post contains spoilers for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

I saw Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice on opening weekend, but I'm only now writing about it. By now the internet has dissected the movie far more adeptly than I could ever manage, but I still wanted to get my thoughts out there.

I thought it was a mess. From the editing to the dream sequences/visions to the whole reason for the Batman-Superman smackdown, I thought the movie failed on several levels. The high points weren't enough to keep the movie from collapsing under the weight of its dour nature and faux-complicated plot.

I'm a big fan of Man of Steel. I realize that's a dangerous opinion on the internet, but I liked that movie. It told a story--a hero's journey--and it told it well. We saw a Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman conflicted over his purpose in life. He didn't just show up at the Fortress of Solitude one day, find an outfit, and turn up a decade later as Superman, as Christopher Reeve's iconic version of the character did. They tried to humanize Superman with the pitfalls of a human being. I get why that didn't work for a lot of people, but it worked for me.

The reason it worked for me because I thought we were seeing a Superman in training. I thought we were seeing a guy who couldn't quite bear the weight of being a hero but who would one day stand tall. One day he'd inspire hope among the people of Earth. "You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders," his father, Jor-El, tells him.

The hopes and dreams of his Kryptonian father are counterbalanced by the all-too-real concerns of Jonathan and Martha Kent, goodhearted Midwesterners who don't really know what to do with a son who has special gifts. They don't want him to show his powers because people fear what they don't understand. Jor-El speaks from an idealistic place; the Kents speak from a realistic one. When Clark saves a school bus full of kids and his father suggests maybe he shouldn't have, it's a reality check for everyone. He doesn't know what to do with his son, and that suggestion rings false from him. There's no way Jonathan Kent thinks that way, not really, but he wants to protect Clark.

In the end of Man of Steel--about the last five minutes or so--we see a hero who wandered for so many years finally find his place. We saw hints of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge nature of the Clark Kent-wears-glasses-Superman-doesn't charade we're familiar with. You got the idea that Clark Kent was ready to embrace his role as Superman and balance the well-intentioned but divergent philosophies of his two families. Superman represents the Kryptonian in him, that ideal to make the world a better place. Clark Kent represents the everyday Midwesterner who can make a difference without bringing attention to himself.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice throws every bit of that character development out the window. We see a Superman who hasn't, in fact, found his way. We meet a character who hasn't developed at all. He's a sulking, conflicted dispenser of vengeance instead of a hopeful beacon of light. Even the fallout from the Battle of Metropolis and the destruction it caused gets only lip service in the movie, replaced by tacked on debates about a mission in Africa and a plot involving a disgruntled man injured in the Superman-General Zod fight who eventually blows himself up and kills several people in the process.

Even the main thrust of the movie, the conflict between Superman and Batman, makes very little sense. Let's pretend for a moment that the writers and producers of the movie remembered the character arc they sketched in Man of Steel. The movie would've presented a Superman who actively cared about humanity and didn't feel so isolated. Maybe he wouldn't be saving kittens from trees, but he'd do random acts of kindness and take joy in it. He'd still realize he couldn't save everyone, but he'd put his best foot forward and prove that the world really does need a Superman.

If we had that Superman in this movie, the showdown between the two heroes would hold up to scrutiny. Let me make this clear: Batman/Bruce Wayne's viewpoint is very well represented. It makes sense as presented in the movie. Bruce Wayne watched people he cared about die; he saw Superman and Zod tear apart Metropolis and neighboring Gotham City. This Batman, older, cynical, jaded, views the newcomer as a threat. His paranoia makes sense. You understand why Batman would consider Superman a threat and try to take him down. No complaints there--Batman's ire against Superman is earned.

This battle should've been a philosophical one: the brighter, inspiring heroics of a Superman who found his way in the world versus the violent, dark methodology of the Caped Crusader. Two opposing worldviews, two opposing forces. Superman a brighter reflection of Batman; Batman a dark harbinger of what Superman's powers could become if warped. The conflict wouldn't need an external agitator in Lex Luthor because it would foster a natural rivalry.

But the movie isn't interested in setting up something that makes sense or with true stakes.

Instead, BvS gives us a Superman and Batman who aren't all that much different. They're basically the same person, one just a little older and angrier. They're both dour, dark, conflicted men with deeply rooted personal issues and warped senses of justice. As such, the conflict between them isn't all that interesting, and the movie contrives a plot from Lex Luthor to make it all happen. The movie would have you believe that Mark Zuckerberg slowly drove Bruce Wayne insane with notes about the dangers of Superman and also fed information to Clark Kent suggesting the Batman was out of control.

Luthor, manipulative? Sure, no problem. If the contrasts between the two heroes had been more pronounced, this could have even been interesting. But that subtle manipulation is undercut by the movie's decision to have Luthor kidnap Lois Lane and Martha Kent. Kill the Bat, or Martha dies, Lex basically says. Thus, Superman doesn't fight Batman because he wants to or because their conflicting worldviews finally come to blows in a satisfying way. They fight because Lex Luthor kidnapped Superman's mom.

I can't state enough how much of a misstep and missed opportunity this was. The movie didn't even need Luthor, not really, but I understand the desire to work him into the plot. I just don't understand his ultimate endgame here or what the hell Jesse Eisenberg was trying to do with the role. Luthor feels superfluous and tacked on. Even his proclamations at the end of the movie that clearly hint at the arrival of Darkseid end up unsatisfying.

And then, hey, let's just throw Doomsday in there and kickstart the Death of Superman storyline.

And then, hey, let's just throw in Wonder Woman (although she was awesome and that music)!

This movie disappointed me more than I could have ever imagined. Zack Snyder and company had all of the ingredients in place for a movie that had a cohesive emotional core. We should've been having a 9/11 panel-type commission on Superman and the Battle of Metropolis instead of some silly debate about a random incident in Africa. We should've had an immovable object versus an irresistible force instead of the "by the way, I know who you are and kidnapped your mom" conflict we're treated to. We should've had a Superman confident in his abilities and role in the world--you know, the Superman hinted at during the conclusion of Man of Steel.

Snyder says there's a three-hour cut of the movie that he wanted the studio to release, but the studio balked at the running time. I think a solid 45 minutes of this movie could've been cut; I can't imagine three hours of it, unless that three-hour cut has tons of character moments that are lacking in the theatrical version.

Oh, and that one trailer with Doomsday totally outlined the plot of the movie. Seriously, WB, that trailer left me with exactly one surprise in the film: Superman's death.

But despite the disappointment I outlined above, there were a few things I liked:

  • Ben Affleck worked great as Batman, and that warehouse fight scene was phenomenal
  • I really enjoyed Wonder Woman
  • Despite everyone's collective hatred of him, I believe Henry Cavill is a good Superman; I feel that in an "I super believe in you Tad Cooper" kind of way
  • We need to see more of Jeremy Irons and his snarky Alfred
  • The "Knightmare" was a sumptuous visual treat
  • I found the use of the Man of Steel theme inspiring at all times

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Studicus Selects 2015

Once, long ago, I posted on the internet as Studicus, an in-joke nickname related to a skit from high school. When I first started blogging, I called my year-end entries "Studicus Selects." The tradition has continued since 2005...although I skipped 2006 for some unknown reason.

You'll find past entries here (scroll down for the 2015 picks):

Studicus Selects 2014
Studicus Selects 2013
Studicus Selects 2012
Studicus Selects 2011
Studicus Selects 2010
Studicus Selects 2009
Studicus Selects 2008
Studicus Selects 2007
Studicus Selects 2005

Most surprising movie, Marvel Cinematic Universe category. Everyone knew Avengers Age of Ultron would be one of the summer's big movies. I enjoyed it, although it wasn't nearly as fun as the first Avengers flick because we had to inject way too much Joss Whedon-angsty stuff into the movie.

What I didn't expect was how much I enjoyed Ant-Man. It reminded me a lot of the first Iron Man movie in the way it was constructed. Plus, it may be the most humorous of all the MCU movies. Every once in a while, it's nice to have a superhero movie where the stakes are huge for a single character but don't hinge on whether or not the world will get destroyed. I highly recommend it.

It also gave us this bonkers promotional video:

The can of Pam is for scale

Largest jar of peanut butter I've ever seen, big jar peanut butter category. My father retired this year and now enjoys the slow-paced life of a retiree with three grandchildren who live less than 30 seconds away. Dad ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches at work, and his coworkers certainly noticed. Upon his retirement, one of them gifted him this large jar of Peter Pan peanut butter. I imagine this lasted about two weeks, tops.

Best family outing, retirement category. Not only did my father retire in September, my mother retired in June. That meant the Adams family (if you hum the theme song, I will Kylo Ren you) took a trip to celebrate the occasion. My brother and I bought tickets to see the Cincinnati Reds play the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park. We got some bonus baseball: the previous night's game couldn't be completed, so they played the rest of it before our game started. The "second" game commemorated Pete Rose night, and we all got Pete Rose bobbleheads. We don't get to do much as a family these days, so it was nice for Mom, Dad, Greg, and I to have a throwback weekend together at the ballpark.

This was definitely one of our most memorable family trips...and the only one involving a group selfie

The Pete Rose bobblehead was indeed buckled in for the trip back to Indy

Most satisfying movie experience, space opera category. "There has been an awakening...have you felt it?" Star Wars is back (as if it ever really left us in the first place). Star Wars: The Force Awakens was by far the most satisfying movie experience of the year. Not only did we get a lot of high quality Han Solo and Chewbacca action, the new characters were great, the movie had a ton of heart, and it's probably the funniest Star Wars movie out there.

Seeing the old gang back on the big screen was an emotional experience for me, as I've always been a huge fan of the original trilogy. I even saw each of the prequel movies multiple times. At one point in my life, I owned all of the action figures from the "Power of the Force" line and had read each and every one of the expanded universe books. After college, I cooled on those things a little bit, but the new movie has really reignited my love for the franchise. I think The Force Awakens deserves its own post one of these days. Maybe I'll write one after I see it...again.

Best website inventory stalking moment, Star Wars: The Force Awakens toy category. Two new Star Wars characters caught my attention when the new toys were released earlier this year: Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma. I thought both looked cool, so I wanted to get their action figures. This proved to be a pretty daunting task. I think everyone wanted these two characters.

"X" never marks the spot, but the Target inventory website doesn't lie

I couldn't find them anywhere; at one point, Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma were going for $60 bucks each on Amazon! I stalked the online inventories of Indianapolis-area Walmart, Kmart, Target, and Toys R Us stores to see if anyone had them in stock. No dice. Both figures were always "out of stock." Then, one magical day, I checked the Target website and Kylo Ren was in stock at one of the Target stores in Greenwood. I happened to be on vacation that week and went to retrieve them. I found two of each figure there and bought the other set for one of my friends, who was just as excited after scouring Chicago-area stores for them.

Sometimes a treasure hunt is REALLY exciting.

Is this an Xbox One or a cardboard box filled with a lack of productivity?

Most self-indulgent Christmas gift, home entertainment category. I wasn't sure I would hop into the "next gen" of videogame systems. My Xbox 360 has been collecting dust upstairs ever since the summer, and I felt the Xbox One was overpriced when it was first released. Then, the Microsoft Store offered a killer deal for the holidays: they slashed $50 off their console bundles, threw in a free game, and offered a $60 store credit for anyone who bought the system. I thought the deal was too good to pass up, so I talked it over with my wife and decided to go for it.

I'm glad I did. The Xbox One is a great system. I bought the Tomb Raider bundle, which came with both Tomb Raider games. The system also came with Assassin's Creed Unity. I used the store credit to buy Batman: Arkham Knight and Lego Batman 3. I ended up getting some gift cards for Best Buy, where I bought an extra controller, a charging station, and a media remote. Basically, the Xbox will replace the Roku since it has most of the same apps. This year, they're also supposed to add DVR functionality for over-the-air TV, which will be great since finding a good OTA DVR is challenging.

So far, I've played through the first Tomb Raider game, and it's fun to be back in the world of gaming. Now I'll have to juggle that with writing.

They mock me every time I write. Every. Stinking. Time.

Writing year in review, still nothing new published category. I was pretty darn productive in 2015! I wrote four novels: two of them in a superhero series I started a couple years ago, one about a drug that extends a person's lifespan, and a young adult fantasy novel about a vaguely medieval world filled with magic and unicorns. If you check out my Twitter stream (you don't tweet enough, @statomatty), you'll see a pretty consistent tally of word counts. When I'm on a project, I'll often write six or seven days during the week. I took a break in November because I needed to go back and polish some of my existing work instead of starting something shiny and new. In addition, I spent some time submitting work. I got a few bites on one of my projects, but nothing came of it.

I do need to get back to writing on a consistent basis. If I hadn't stopped in November to do some revisions, I'd probably have written a fifth book in 2015. I will get back at it in 2016.

Strangest obsession, it's clearly a cult category. The HBO documentary Going Clear absolutely captivated me. I'd heard of Scientology before, but I didn't quite grasp how nutso the whole thing was. After watching the HBO doc about the "religion" (ahem) created by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard (LRH!), I couldn't get the whole concept out of my mind. I read the book that served as the basis for the documentary and got sucked into the internet rabbit hole that is Scientology. The whole thing is unbelievable.

See, most religions tell you the creation story right away. It's kind of the first thing you learn about. In Christianity, you pretty much start with Genesis and go from there. God created the Earth, you know? Well, in Scientology, they hold the origin story from you until you reach a certain level. After you spend thousands upon thousands of dollars and endure countless "audits," you learn the "creation" myth of Scientology, which involves an intergalactic warlord named Xenu. I won't get into it, but this Wikipedia page has a nice summary if you feel like gouging your eyes out.

We love Walt, but Henry Standing Bear is our favorite character

Most surprising Netflix addiction, Matt and Anne category. Anne and I fell in love with the TV show Longmire. We binge-watched the series in just a few weeks. No one was more excited that Netflix was going to produce a fourth season than the two of us. When it was released, we couldn't wait to blow through the new episodes. Netflix picked up the show for a fifth season, and you can bet we'll watch it when it comes out.

I'll also make an honorable mention with Halt and Catch Fire. Anne's in love with Lee Pace, so that's pretty much why we started watching it. Turns out, it was a great show. Another really good one: Turn. We liked both of these shows enough that we bought season passes for their second seasons because we couldn't wait for them to make it to Netflix.

Depressing sports news, Colts and Reds category. We said goodbye to Reggie Wayne this year, and he briefly toyed with the idea of joining the Patriots. After seeing the team overpay for Andre Johnson, you wonder why they just didn't keep Reggie around. So that was depressing.

Also depressing: a season that reminded me of such quarterbacking luminaries as Kerwin Bell, Paul Justin, Kelly Holcomb, Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, and Dan Orlovsky. The Colts let their star, Andrew Luck, get pummeled and miss half of the season. Then his 40-year-old backup, Matt Hasselbeck, got pummeled. His backup, Charlie Whitehurst, strained his hamstring and ended up on injured reserve. The team with (delusional) "Super Bowl aspirations" instead ended up as a complete disappointment. I think Jeff George is starting Week 17 against the Titans. That guy's always waiting by the phone, you know? They still have a chance of making the playoffs, but I think it involves a few teams winning and a human sacrifice or something.

And then you have the Cincinnati Reds. A few years ago, they had this great core group of players. Now, they're just terrible. They traded fan favorite Todd Frazier in a move that makes me sick to my stomach. The team is trying to move Brandon Phillips as well, also making me sick to my stomach. Closer Aroldis Chapman got shipped to the New York Yankees. I'll miss the flames on the tall stacks for his 103-mph fastball, although losing him isn't the gut punch of the other two. Basically, the Reds are a mess. I'm sure they couldn't afford Frazier once his contract was up, but you hate to lose a player you brought up through your farm system and who became a fan favorite.

Best YouTube discovery, uproariously funny anti-highlights category. The 2014-2015 New York Knicks "highlights" video is a thing of beauty. Set to "One Shining Moment," it shows the "best" of a terrible basketball team. I laugh until I cry every time.

Seriously. Just watch it:

Most ambitious undertaking, home media server category. I watch a lot of Seinfeld. I have the complete series on DVD, but I HATE flipping through and switching discs and hunting for certain episodes. I solved that problem by digitizing all the episodes and putting them on a Plex media server. Now, I can use the remote to find the episode that I want. Anne and I watch "The Chicken Roaster" episode way too much.

Very few products actually change your life. Plex changed mine.

After that, I went completely bonkers and digitized my entire DVD collection. Every movie I own is now available on Plex and accessible at the touch of a button. I've streamed a lot of my movies on the Roku, though the Xbox One will probably do the heavy lifting from here on out. The only drawback: I don't have a Blu-ray drive for my PC, so I can't digitize my Blu-ray discs. Still, a small sacrifice for a great user experience.

Best dates, married couple category. Anne and I had our share of great times this year, but a few definitely stick out. In January, I took Anne to see Disney on Ice. She's seen it before, but this time I went with her. She wore a tiara and everything, just like all the little girls who were there with their parents.

Princess Anne, everyone

During a vacation in March, we visited the new Giordano's on the north side. We've been to the one in Chicago a couple times, and we really enjoyed the one in Indy. Actually we need to go back, come to think of it!
In December, we went to see A Christmas Carol at Beef and Boards. I love that show! My favorite version is the one that aired on TNT in the 90s with Patrick Stewart (Anne gave me that on DVD this year!). The Beef and Boards production was pretty great, though, and it came with a dinner buffet. Carved roast beef for the win!

And of course, we also saw Star Wars in a packed theater in Greenwood, and that was a lot of fun. I especially enjoyed the postgame discussion at the Oaken Barrel.

Best meme, requested by Anne category. We are devoted Game of Thrones fans, and we were devastated by what happened to Jon Snow. I made an off-the-cuff remark after the episode: "You know nothing, Jon Snow"/"I know I got stabbed like 75 times." Anne demanded that I make it into a meme, and so I did.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Crimsonstreak in StoryBundle

You know what's cool? Having I, Crimsonstreak made available with a bunch of other awesome superhero books!

The novel is one of several available as part of StoryBundle's latest collection. These bundles are really neat: you pick what price you're willing to pay for a collection of similarly themed books. Seriously...think these books are worth $1 total? Pay a dollar! Think they're worth $50? By all that. We'll all thank you.

But there's a slight catch: if you decide the books are worth less than $12 total, you'll only get four of them (including Crimsonstreak). Pay at least $12 and you activate four bonus books by some really great authors. That's the beauty of StoryBundle: it's an affordable way to get a ton of books and discover some under-the-radar reads.

Here are the books available in this bundle: 
Pick your price and suit up for some awesome superhero action! Make sure to hurry...the deal only lasts for the next three weeks. After that, it's gone quicker than you can say, "Crimsonspeed, go!"

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Not fooling us, Disney, on that Star Wars digital release

The impending release this week of the Star Wars movies on digital download should be a cause for celebration. I should kneel next to my Ewok brothers and sisters to sing "Yub Nub."

However, I'm not buying this one. Not this time.

Like many fans, I've purchased my share of Star Wars sets. I had the original CBS/Fox VHS release when I was a kid. Then the 1995 THX remastered set and its Leonard Maltin introductions. The 1997 VHS special editions. The first-run DVDs. The Blu-ray box set. The only home video release--excepting LaserDisc--I really missed out on is the DVD release featuring the theatrical versions as "special features."

That was the wrong edition to skip.

Needless to say, I love Star Wars.

For a long time, I collected everything about the galaxy far, far away. I could, at one point, boast that I had each and every toy and vehicle in the revamped Kenner "Power of the Force" collection with its musclebound Luke Skywalker and "buff" Princess Leia. At one point, I could also say I'd read every expanded universe novel and comic book ever released.

I can't say that anymore. I'm married, I have bills to pay, and I figured I'd better read other things than Star Wars books. It may sound like I'm bitter or have lost my love for the holy trilogy, but that's far from the case. I still quote the movies incessantly. Evil sports teams--mostly the New England Patriots--are always the "Empire." I read every tidbit of news I can about the new movie coming out in December (while engaging in the quixotic quest of avoiding "really big" spoilers). You'll find a lot of Star Wars references in my novels. I even wrote one that's nothing but a complete, meta-meta love letter to the Star Wars universe.

Still, the news that all the movies will get a digital release this week makes me uneasy. How many times are we going to extort money out of fans without giving many of them what they really want? Why can't people who've already purchased the Blu-ray set get the digital sets at a reduced cost? (I know the answer, it's green, and Disney swims in it.) Why not give the fans something they've wanted for a long time--the original, unaltered original Star Wars trilogy?

I know there are some rights things to work out (20th Century Fox owns the rights to the original movie while Disney owns the others...but not Empire or Jedi for a few more years, as I understand it). I've heard excuses like the "originals were destroyed to strike new prints for the special editions." Even if that's the case, it didn't stop some dude named Harmy from cobbling together an excellent cut of the original without any crappy CGI bells and whistles. If that guy can do it, surely the army of people at Disney and Lucasfilm can do it, color correct it, touch up the video a bit, and enhance the sound.

Surely they can get rid of that CGI Jabba scene and make sure Han fries Greedo. They can get rid of those annoying CGI scenes that "expand" Mos Eisley while looking like they're from a different movie (and a dated CGI one at that). They can restore Cloud City to its purely 80s form and get rid of the awful Ian McDiarmid emperor and the silly dialogue tweaks that ensued. They can mind-wipe the out-of-place dance number in Jabba's Palace and restore "Yub Nub." Harmy did it. So can they.

I didn't always hate the special editions. In fact, I loved them when they came out because I was a teenager and I got to see Star Wars on the big screen! I saw them a bunch of times in the theater, especially when they hit our dollar cinema in Richmond, Indiana. Let's just say my father and I went through a lot of Tootsie Rolls while watching them, okay? Over the years, though, the additions really started to feel out of place. That cutting-edge CGI started to look out of place; animations were stiff and things looked too "shiny" for Star Wars and its "used up" vibe.

For Christmas, my brothers-in-law said they wished they could find the "original" Star Wars movies. I went and found them on the internet. I don't usually pirate stuff, but I didn't feel bad about this. Harmy's "Despecialized" versions are fantastic even though they exist in a legally gray area. However, since Disney/Lucas won't release those untouched classics, you have to wade "into the gray" to find them. I waded into the gray and made copies for my brothers-in-law and my brother.

They told me "I won Christmas" this year and for years to come.

That's why this "digital release" is such a disappointment. My brothers-in-law would gladly pay money for the restored, original masterpieces. The problem is, they can't because they're not available. Creators certainly have rights, and George Lucas can do whatever he wants with the movies he created. It's just that... these aren't just movies to a lot of people. They're reminders of simpler, more innocent times, and people want to share them with their children and nieces and nephews. They want them to see the world as they once did, even if that world is a little rough around the edges.

Perhaps someday, fans will get their wish. It just won't be Friday, when Star Wars goes digital for the bargain price of $100 (or $90, apparently, on Vudu).

Monday, March 23, 2015

Cutting the cord and a Sling TV review

About a year ago, my wife and I decide to cut the cord. We were tired of paying $120 a month for cable through AT&T U-verse. We didn't have any trouble with it--we actually liked U-verse a lot--we just felt like we were paying too much and wanted a little more flexibility in our monthly budget.

The TV package had a base price of $74.99. They got us in all of the add-ons, taxes, and fees. Since we had three TVs hooked up to U-verse, we were charged a fee for each box, bringing the price up to $89.99. Then we got the $10 HD fee, making it $99.99. Add in local taxes, broadcast licensing fees, and other miscellaneous BS, and our bill was around $120 a month. We just didn't like paying for it, so we made the decision to stop TV service.

I've heard a lot of horror stories about people who've had to deal with AT&T, but I've never had a problem with their service. I called, talked to a customer service rep, and explained that we wanted to drop our TV service. After about 20 minutes of conversation in which the agent very kindly tried to find options that would work for our budget, he agreed to unhook our TV service. It's kind of unfathomable that you can't just call and have something that you're paying for turned off, but that's how it works. The rep was never pushy and simply did everything he could to retain us as TV customers. I get that. He actually lowered our cell phone bill (we get our cell service through AT&T) and upgraded our internet service for no extra charge. I'd set out to lower our bill by cutting TV; I ended up cutting TV and lowering our other costs.

So the $120/month disappeared off our bill the next month. Before canceling, I bought a Mohu Leaf antenna for $25 to make sure we could get local channels. It worked just fine; we live on the south side of Indianapolis, and get about 30 channels or so. Most of the networks have digital subchannels, plus you get a few shopping channels (QVC, HSN), a smattering of independent channels, and some religious channels. Really, all I cared about was getting CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and CW (Arrow!, The Flash!). The antenna works like a charm, although I only bought one for the TV my wife and I watch the most.

Up next, the Roku. I'd thought about getting a Chromecast, but the Roku Streaming Stick felt like the better option. The stick connects to our TV via HDMI and offers an assortment of "streaming channels," which is code for "apps that work on Roku." We can watch Netflix, Hulu, and buy/rent movies on the Roku stick. We've had a Netflix subscription for a long time, so Netflix didn't add any extra costs after we cut cable. We didn't subscribe to Hulu, however, so our cable savings decreased by $8.55 a month so we could subscribe to Hulu. It's definitely worth it. I haven't found a great DVR solution for over-the-air TV yet (there are several options, but I haven't seen one that "clicks" for me yet), so Hulu lets us watch our network shows if we're busy at night and can't watch them when they air. Most of the big network shows are there, although you won't find much in the way of CBS programming (we don't watch any CBS shows, so no big loss for us).

I also purchased Plex for $5. It's an online media server for your computer. The Plex Roku app allows me to watch movies I've ripped from DVD onto my PC remotely. Plex takes care of the transcoding and streams the media from my PC to the television. The biggest reason I did this was Seinfeld. Currently, aside from Sony's Crackle service, no one has Seinfeld available for streaming. Even then, Crackle selects ten episodes a month, which I can burn through really quickly. Since I have all nine seasons of the "show about nothing," I ripped them onto my computer, organized the files via Plex's naming conventions (fairly easy but it certainly had some caveats), and added the library to Plex. Now, all nine seasons of the show are organized and easy to watch.

Trust me, it's a lot better than juggling 30+ discs and trying to remember which season "The Chicken Roaster" was part of (it's season eight).

After the success of ripping my Seinfeld sets, I worked on my DVD collection. There's something really cool about having your own movies available on-demand. Thank you, Plex.

I don't have a Blu-ray drive for my PC, so I'm relying on Ultraviolet digital copies for some of my most recent purchases like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past. For about a year, I relied on the Target Ticket service to stream my Ultraviolet movies, but Target shuttered the service this month--a cautionary tale about the hazards of digital locket services. I liked Target Ticket's interface, and they had a lot of good sales, but not many other people used it. Thankfully, Target Ticket users could transfer their accounts to Best Buy's CinemaNow service. Oddly enough, I've started using Walmart's VUDU. The Roku app has improved tremendously over the last few months, and VUDU also aligns with Disney's Movies Anywhere, giving me access to all my Ultraviolet movies in addition to Disney's streaming catalog. Roku also has Google Play Movies, another service aligned with Disney Movies Anywhere. Google Play isn't tied into Ultraviolet--they want to see you their own movies and TV shows--so I don't use it as much.

Basically, I have plenty to watch when it comes to TV even though I scrapped cable.

There are some drawbacks, though.

Not having a DVR is frustrating, although Hulu covers that for the most part. On occasion, I'm busy and would like to record a live ball game, but those occasions are rare and I work around them.

The biggest problem is sports. I love to watch football, basketball, and baseball, but unless the game is on broadcast TV, I'm out of luck. I listened to more games on radio this year for IU football and basketball as well as Indiana Pacers games. Football wasn't a problem; Notre Dame's games are almost always on national TV, and every Indianapolis Colts game (my true passion) is available on local TV via CBS, FOX, or NBC. Monday Night Games on ESPN are picked up by a local channel as well. Radio will be my choice for Cincinnati Reds games; MLB's draconian TV contracts prevent me from watching in-market games via the otherwise excellent MLB TV app.

March Madness was a problem, however. The games air on four channels: CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV. CBS picked up most of the ones I wanted to watch, but the Valpo-Maryland game was on TNT or TBS (I can't remember exactly). I could watch a good measure of the games via my Android tablet, but who wants to watch on a 7" screen when there's a 42" TV right in front of you?

The solution?

Sling TV.

It's owned by Dish Network and offers a small selection of cable TV channels for $20/month. The bundle includes ESPN and ESPN2, AMC, TBS, TNT, IFC, Food Network, HGTV, ABC Family, Disney, and a few others. You can also add some different "tiers" for an additional $5/month. They just happened to have a seven-day trial that's perfect for testing out the service AND watching March Madness.

I signed up for the trial on Friday, entered my information, downloaded the Sling TV Roku app, and had the service up and running. The whole thing took less than five minutes to set up from registration to Roku streaming. I watched Valpo lose a heartbreaker without having to use the tablet. So far, so good. I thought maybe I'd be interested in the service for $20/month.

Then, Saturday night happened. Two of the teams I follow, Butler and Notre Dame, played a late game on TNT or TBS (again, I don't recall which one). However, Sling TV's Roku app wouldn't load ESPN, ESPN2, AMC, TNT, or TBS. I could, for some reason, watch "Chopped" on Food Network and some of the other channels, but the ones I wanted wouldn't load on Roku. I have no idea why.

Curiously, Sling TV worked fine on my Android tablet, so I watched it through there (the picture was better than the one on the March Madness app). I was thankful to be able to watch the game, although seeing one of the tournament's best games on the tablet screen instead of my regular TV rankled me a little.

I had other options, of course. I could've gone to a local establishment to watch the game (the admission fee being drinks and chicken wings) or gone over to a friend's house to see it. The drawback was that this was a late game (tipoff around 10 p.m.), and I didn't really want to be "out" that late. Call me a curmudgeon; that's fine.

Sunday, Sling TV was working fine on the Roku. I watched a game on CBS and loaded TNT on the Sling TV app so I could flip back and forth between games. On occasion, I'd get an error from Sling TV telling me I was "not authorized to watch this content." I'd exit out of the app, reload Sling TV, and everything would be fine.

When the seven-day trial ends this week, I don't think I'll pay for a full month of service yet. Sling TV is an "almost" product. I clearly see the potential, but being unable to watch Notre Dame and Butler--one of the reasons I signed up for the trial in the first place--showed me Sling TV isn't dependable yet. I imagine these issues will get worked out, and when they do, I think it'll be a great service. It's just that having service disruptions on two days in a row for a big-time event like March Madness doesn't give me a lot of confidence in it yet.

I think it's worth a try, though.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Colts Observations, AFC Championship vs. Evil

Quick summary:

Sometimes, sequels just suck.

Ick. The Colts may be able to beat Jacksonville and Tennessee. They may push around the Bengals and take advantage of an injured Peyton Manning and the Broncos. They can't beat New England, pure and simple. Even when it was 14-7, it felt like 45-7.

Any bright spots here? Um...well, D'Qwell Jackson's interception surprised me. The Colts stopped a probable scoring drive and turned it into a 93-yard touchdown drive of their own. Note how difficult it was for the Colts to score seven points and how easy it was for the Patriots to score 45.

Vanderjagtian miss. This one time, the Colts drove the ball past the 50-yard line and tried a field goal. Adam Vinatieri's kick wasn't even close. It was embarrassingly off the mark. Would it have mattered? Heck, yeah! The Colts would've lost 45-10.

Three-and-out...and a turnover. The Colts stopped New England's first drive, forcing a three-and-out. It ultimately didn't matter because Josh Cribbs tried to catch the resulting punt with his face. It didn't work out. The Patriots wasted no time, going 26 yards in six plays to score their first touchdown of the game.

So this is the kind of day it's gonna be. Boom Herron couldn't make an over-the-shoulder catch on a good throw from Luck that would've gained a lot of yards. The Colts ended up trying a 51-yard field goal that wasn't even close. On the Patriots' next drive, Tom Brady guns a pass to Shane Vereen, who makes a miraculous catch in front of Jerrell Freeman. The Patriots capitalized with a touchdown to push their lead to 14-0.

Blount Force Trauma. Thirty carries, 148 yards, three touchdowns. LeGarrette Blount feasted on the Colts, again.

Deflated balls? The NFL is investigating whether New England used deflated balls during the game. This would be a rules violation and would surprise absolutely no one if it's true. What many people don't realize is that improperly inflated balls make running backs impossible to tackle. It's physics. (cough, cough) Anyway, in all seriousness, it goes to show the Patriots will do anything to get a competitive edge even when they know they're gonna kick your butt on the field.

The Bearded One. A guy named Peyton ran into some trouble with a guy named Belichick. He eventually got over the hump. Here's hoping No. 12 will one day learn how to defeat Hoodie and his minions.

Along those lines... The Colts losses to New England during the Manning-Dungy Era didn't feel completely hopeless like the losses during the Luck-Pagano Era. True, the Patriots had little trouble with Indy, but the games weren't 38-point blowouts. Those games felt like a play or two could've swung the game. This game didn't feel that way.

Roughing the passer? I enjoyed Andrew Luck's reaction to the "roughing the passer" on Jerrell Freeman, who hit Brady between the numbers. Mike Carey called it a "clear penalty." Of course, Luck got belted later in the game, but that wasn't a "clear penalty."

Glimmer of hope. I thought the Colts weathered the storm when they forced New England to kick a field goal at the end of the half. I was kidding myself, of course. The Patriots reeled off 21 points in the decisive, disastrous third quarter.

Keep it in perspective. On the other hand, think of where the Colts were three seasons ago. They'd just gone 2-14 and said goodbye to their franchise quarterback. Expectations were low, and they made it to the playoffs. The next year, they hosted and won a playoff game before falling short in the divisional round. This year, they made it to the AFC Championship Game, notching a road win in the process. It's true that the resulting title game was nearly impossible to watch. It's true that the game will stick in fans' and players' minds. It's equally true that the Colts have earned some critical postseason experience that will serve them well in the years to come.

Highest-paid QB in the league? The Colts are supposedly pounding out the framework for a mega contract that will keep Luck in Indianapolis. The deal would make him the richest QB in the league. You know what I don't like about it? A contract like that threatens to keep the Colts where they've been since drafting Peyton--a team with too much money committed to one position. That said, it's a good idea to lock Luck into a long-term deal.

What's next for Reggie Wayne? Reggie went from integral part of the offense to token depth chart guy very quickly. The last few games were quiet for him, aside from that awesome catch against the Titans. I'd like to see him get healthy and come back for one more year, but I'm not sure everyone agrees.

Under duress. Luck wasn't sacked once Sunday, but he was under pressure throughout the game. As usual, New England offered different looks and harassed him with the pass rush. Receivers couldn't find much space--and when they did, Luck wasn't on target. He completed just 36% of his passes.

Where do they go? Are the Colts "almost there" or simply a decent team with a good quarterback? I think they need to add a premier pass rusher and more playmakers on the defensive line. The Patriots won't be the Patriots forever, but Indy has to build a team that can compete with them. Strong safety is a position in need of a serious upgrade. I think the linebacking corps needs some playmakers. Offensively, they need consistency on the offensive line and a solid "change of pace" running back with a burst of speed.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Colts Observations, Divisional Round vs. Broncos

Quick summary:

A legend fades. An upstart tastes his destiny. That's not overdramatic at all.

Did you think they would win? I thought the Colts had a shot, but I didn't expect them to dominate the Broncos like that. I thought we'd see a high-scoring game with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck trying to one-up each other until time ran out. That's not what happened.

Stellar defense. Where has this been all season? This is the same unit that surrendered six touchdown passes to Ben Roethlisberger, got torched by Tom Brady, and got embarrassed by Tony Romo. They were physical in the secondary--their strength--and also showed some semblance of a pass rush. True, they only had two sacks, but they harassed Manning all day and made a key play early.

Jonathan Newsome. Did anyone think this kid would lead the Colts in sacks during the regular season? I didn't think so. His Robert Mathisian sack-fumble at the start of the second quarter shifted momentum in the Colts' favor. The Colts capitalized with a touchdown and never looked back. Well, at least, not very far.

The offensive line. If I had five game balls to give out, they'd go to these guys. Where did this come from? Denver has two premier pass rushers who combined for 24 sacks during the regular season. Yet Andrew Luck, who spent most of the season getting the slobber knocked out of him and telling defenders they "made a nice hit," ended up with a clean jersey this week. And what about the Colts' last true offensive possession? Thirteen plays, 54 yards, and 8:14 of time off the clock. The result was a field goal and an 11-point lead. You don't hold the ball for eight-plus minutes without the O-line doing its job. So let's hear it for Anthony Castonzo, Jack Mewhort, Khaled Holmes (yes, that KHALED HOLMES), Lance Louis (yes, that LANCE LOUIS) and Joe Reitz (yes, that JOE REITZ).

T.Y. Hilton. The numbers don't jump off the stat sheet: four catches, 72 yards. What they don't tell you is how thoroughly T.Y. Hilton dominated Aquib Talib throughout the game. It doesn't factor in another key drop by Hilton on what should've been another huge play. He's turned into one of the best in the league, and it's fun to watch.

Da Boom. He touched the ball 31 times this week. No fumbles, no drops, no drama. Okay, a little drama with that left shoulder, which appeared to be a little tender on the first series and seemed to be aggravated during the touchdown run. Herron was solid, not spectacular, and I love how the Colts have used him in the playoffs. Hat tip to "I'm Zurlon from the Planet Tipton," too. They worked themselves into a solid RB duo.

Where's the Trentspiration? About to be cut by the Colts, methinks. We all waited for Richardson to show something, and some of us (cough, cough) were reluctant to give up on him. It's clear he didn't work out, given how effective the Herron-Tipton combo has been in the playoffs. I mean, Herron-Tipton isn't the greatest RB combo ever, but they're just productive enough, something you can't say about The Mistake.

LaWorthless. I don't like LaRon Landry. I suspect no one likes LaRon Landry except for himself in the mirror. He had two memorable LaWorthless moments: letting Julius Thomas beat him for a deep pass that set up the Broncos' first touchdown and missing a tackle on C.J. Anderson that left me shaking my head. Landry's supposed to be "the enforcer" safety in the run game, so he has to make that play. Cory Redding also let Anderson shake out of the tackle, while Bjoern Werner was kind of in the area but not really a factor. You know, just Bjoern bein' Bjoern. In the end, it didn't matter, but it gave the Broncos a much-needed spark. Other than those two keys plays that killed his own team, Landry had a decent game.

They won despite a ton of mistakes. The Colts had ten penalties for 67 yards, including a roughing the passer flag that led to Denver's only touchdown. They had false starts and offside penalties as well. Adam Vinatieri missed a field goal, which is always notable if a little picky on my part. I'd throw a couple of turnovers in there as well, but I'm not too down on those.

The interceptions. One did lead to a Broncos field goal before the half, but I didn't have any problems with these throws, really. My only hesitation would be that you have one of the best punters in the game and should use him. Pat McAfee's usually good for 45-52 yards on a punt and could've more significantly changed field position.

Two great throws. Luck was on target for most of the game, but my two favorite throws were the BB he sent to Hakeem Nicks while scrambling and the big throw to Coby Fleener that set up the Nicks touchdown. The first one was a great example of Luck (to use the cliche) extending the play while the second was a perfectly thrown ball in a tight window on third and 16. He got it between the linebacker and the safety--they don't come much better than that.

End of an era. Manning clearly faded late in the season. He wasn't hitting the deep ball that he usually throws so well. He was clearly hurt and clearly upset that he lost and wasn't at his best. As a Colts fan, I've been on the other side of those news conferences, where a neatly dressed Manning stands there and answers the same questions a million times and tells everyone he just wasn't good enough that game. Will he come back? I don't know...but I do know that I want a different ending for him.

Ageless Reggie Wayne has, lamentably, aged. Two great figures of the Indianapolis Colts Golden Era are now in their golden years, and it's no fun. Reggie Wayne didn't catch a single pass this week--not a single one. He gave us some nice edge blocking, but he wasn't a major factor in the passing game. Combined with Peyton's tough luck, it put a sad capstone on a wonderful era.

Onto Foxborough! It's the place where Colts playoff teams go to die. Will young Andrew Luck and his ragtag band of rebels shock Emperor Hoodie and Darth Brady?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Colts Observations: Wild Card Round vs. Bengals

Quick summary:

Like kicking a baby tiger.

Was it ever in doubt? Well, okay, it was after Boom Herron fumbled at the end of the first half, giving the Bengals the chance to make a miracle 57-yard field goal to pull within three points. Other than that, though, the game wasn't very close.

Luck's big heave. You know the one I'm talking about. It's the play that broke the game open and gave the Colts the cushion they needed to win. I'm still not quite sure how he did it, but I'm glad he found Donte Moncrief.

Boom service. I thought we'd see a good deal of Boom Herron, but I didn't expect the all-around "Boom-centric" offense we ended up seeing. The Colts used Herron a ton this week. He ended up with 22 touches: 12 carries for 56 yards and 10 catches for 85 yards. He was very effective.

D'oh! But Boom's big weakness also came to the forefront. He lost a fumble at a key moment in the game, giving the Bengals a faint heartbeat. He also fumbled later in the game, although the Colts recovered that one. Until it stops, people are going to talk about it.

At least there were no Andrew Luck turnovers. To be honest, I kept waiting for it--that moment in the game where No. 12 holds onto the ball too long and gets sacked or decides to chuck the ball down the middle of the field while in the grasp of a defender. It never came. Luck didn't turn the ball over one single time.

Drop it like it's Hilton? My goodness, how many big plays did T.Y. Hilton leave out there on the field? The Colts could've crushed the Bengals and gone on cruise control for the rest of the game if No. 13 had been able to snag a few of those precious passes. He wasn't the only one with a drop, though. Coby Fleener got in on the action, too (of course). On the plus side, Hilton finished with 100+ receiving yards.

"I am Zurlon from the planet Tipton." With Trent Richardson out this week with a sprained ego, the Colts turned to backup Zurlon Tipton to spell Herron/secure the ball. Tipton ran 11 times for 40 yards. I liked what I saw.

Touchdown! Oh...wait. Nothing worse out there as a fan than the "oh, there's a flag on the play" moments. It happened after Luck hit Fleener for a touchdown...and the replay showed Moncrief leveled his man from behind.

Vinny's still got it. Even though he broke his consecutive field goal streak last week, Adam Vinatieri started a new one, connecting on four field goals to make sure the Colts didn't completely squander their numerous scoring opportunities.

Does Bjoern Werner still play for this team? Yeah, I saw him get leveled by an offensive lineman. He's still out there. Zero tackles, people. Zero tackles.

Is that Jerrell or Jor-El? Jerrell Freeman was all over the place this week. He was credited with 15 tackles (seven solo) and 1.5 sacks. He also slammed the door shut with a sack-strip late in the fourth quarter.

A statistic that surprised me. Erik Walden finished with only two tackles. He seemed to be around the ball a ton this week, and I could've sworn he had more than two tackles.

Does Andy Dalton hate Gio Bernard? I ask only because he floated another pass out into the flat so Vontae Davis could tee off on him. I'm sure Bernard is thankful he didn't get belted as hard as he did before.

Tight ends aplenty. The Colts went with a lot of two tight end and three tight end sets this week. They didn't have a huge influence on the passing game (7 catches, 57 yards combined for Fleener, Dwayne Allen, and Jack Doyle), but their presence was definitely felt.

Off to Denver. The Colts get to go to Denver next week to play Peyton Manning and the Broncos. I can't wait to see how many times people feel it's necessary to point out that Manning used to play for the Colts.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Studicus Selects 2014

Once, long ago, I posted on the internet as Studicus, an in-joke nickname related to a skit from high school. When I first started blogging, I called my year-end entries "Studicus Selects." The tradition has continued since 2005...although I skipped 2006 for some unknown reason.

You'll find past entries here (scroll down for the 2014 picks):

Studicus Selects 2013
Studicus Selects 2012
Studicus Selects 2011
Studicus Selects 2010
Studicus Selects 2009
Studicus Selects 2008
Studicus Selects 2007
Studicus Selects 2005

The year Indiana Out-Hothed Hoth. We've had cold winters in Indiana. We've had snowy winters in Indiana. We've had mild winters in Indiana. We rarely, however, have winters in which you can't tell your home from Echo Base on Hoth. It was pure misery in 2014, with county travel restrictions all across the state and all the snow and ice you'd ever want to see in your life. I spent three days away from home in a hotel room close to work because of the weather.

I could've used a tauntaun (although it would've died because of the extreme cold) or a snowspeeder (although we were have trouble adapting them to the cold). I think I speak for everyone when I say it's something we don't want to see ever again. On the plus side, it spawned fun Facebook updates like this:

"Good to be home for the first time since early Sunday morning. Passed three tauntauns and four AT-AT walkers on the way back. Let me tell you, the turn lane to Echo Base was a MESS. Nearly rammed an Imperial probe droid."

Least effective good luck charm, NFL Playoffs category. I thought the horsehead hat would help the Indianapolis Colts against the New England Patriots. It didn't. I thought dusting off my old Colts Peyton Manning jersey would help the Denver Broncos beat the Seattle Seahawks. It didn't.

So this category is actually a push. They both stunk.

Least comfortable head decoration, Authors Fair category. I donned a Viking helmet for a few minutes at the Madison Authors Fair. It belonged to a cool author named Stu Thaman.

Best meeting with local chieftains, Iowa category. I made my first-ever trip to Iowa this year. It's the birthplace of my father-in-law and Anne was also born there. I got to see her grandparents and extended family. Iowa reminded me a lot of my hometown in Williamsburg, Ind. We saw a lot of gravel roads, farmland, small businesses, and small towns. Cell phone reception was predictably horrible.

Still, I had a great time seeing where my father-in-law came from. He needed back surgery this year, and this was the last big trip he was able to make before the surgery. I split driving duties with my brother-in-law, Tom.

Favorite international curling squad, Olympics category. The Olympics were back this year! I'm a sucker for the Winter Games. Curling remains my favorite sport to watch, although I'll sit through just about anything. My wife LOVED the skip of Norway's curling team. I thought he looked like a villain from an 80s action movie:
Biggest laugh, "intimidating Uncle Matt" category. My nephew Luke (and niece Elise) love playing "Monkey in the Middle" (when I was a kid, it was called keep-away, but whatever) when I visit. I laugh every time I think about a memorable encounter Luke and I had during a game over the summer. Here's a Facebook entry from June 7, 2014:
"Best part of the day: playing keep keep-away with my niece Elise and nephew Luke. While I was in the middle, I played some 'pressure D' on Luke and got right in his face. He couldn't throw around or over after a few seconds, he ran into the garage and closed the door. Smart kid."

Saddest passage, aquatic frog category. Sadly, our little frog died over the summer. Prince was part of our household for five years. He was a little aquatic frog. You wouldn't think a little pet like that would have much personality, but Prince had a ton of it. He swam to the edge of his tank and watched Colts football games with me (and sometimes movies). I think he was attracted to the flashing lights on the TV.

Anne took very good care of the little guy, but he was sick at the end and eventually passed away. He gave us a lot of good stories to tell, and I'll never forget him. Emptying out his tank and putting it away was one of the worst moments of the year, and our home feels like it's missing something without him.

Writing year in review. 2014 ended up being a very productive writing year. From an events standpoint, I went to my old elementary school to talk to a gifted and talented class about writing. The kids were very gracious. I also attended the Authors Fair in Madison and the Geek-A-Thon event at Hanover College. I probably need to do some more book signings!

From a writing perspective, I finished and submitted III Crimsonstreak, the third and final book in the Crimsonstreak series. I finished a book called That's No Moon, which is equal parts Galaxy Quest, Jurassic Park, and National Lampoon's Vacation with a big portion of Star Wars pop culture goodness thrown in. I finished the first draft of a book called The Exclusive, a paranormal suspense novel involving a hard-driving TV news reporter who accidentally unleashes the apocalypse. Over the summer, I wrote a middle grade science fiction book adapting a story I wrote in sixth grade called The Adventures of the Taxis. In the fall, I wrote a first draft of Timey Dancer, an idea I kicked around for a few years before writing (more on that below). In December, I began work on a sequel to an unpublished superhero book called The Franchise. The sequel's working title is The Franchise: Awakening.

Needless to say, it's been a busy, busy writing year. I need to submit more work, however. Query letters and rejections are the worst, but they're part of the deal.

Most ridiculous book idea, "It Came from Facebook" category. Timey Dancer is a book about a male exotic dancer named Russ "Studicus" Chambers who gets transported to Ancient Rome. He ends up having to perform for Julius Caesar and introduces pole dancing. It's a ridiculous idea that sprang from a Facebook exchange involving my brother, a friend, and me. The other inspiration was the great "Saturday Night Live" sketch featuring Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley.

Favorite movie, Marvel Cinematic Universe category. I loved Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's my favorite movie of the year--and it may be my favorite Marvel movie. You've got great characters, fantastic action sequences, thrilling spycraft, jarring conspiracies, and humor. The movie sent a ripple throughout the whole MCU, and helped make "Agents of SHIELD" must-watch TV. Captain America has always been among my favorite superheroes, and the movie did a phenomenal job of retaining his all-American image while he comes to grips with an ever-changing world.

Best purchase, so long cable category. We dumped AT&T Uverse service because we were sick of paying for TV. We bought a Mohu Leaf and a Roku Streaming Stick, and haven't looked back. The Leaf gives me all the Indianapolis channels while the Roku gives me access to Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services like VUDU and Target Ticket. By my calculations, we've saved $1,200 since April.

Best Christmas gift given, gray market movie category. My brothers-in-law Tom and Matt wanted the Star Wars movies without any digital enhancements or changes. I couldn't do it myself, but I found someone who'd already "despecialized" the movies. Going through some questionable gray markets, I found the movies and packaged them as the "Nothing Special Editions." I even presented them with a letter "from" George Lucas apologizing for changing Star Wars.

"You've won Christmas," Tom said after getting the gift.

I also threw in a copy for my brother.

Best Christmas gift received, childhood nostalgia category. My brother and his family bought me the Intellivision Flashback. It's a miniature "plug and play" Intellivision gaming console and it's fantastic.

The box boasts that it contains 61 games, and it certainly does. I played World Championship Baseball the other night, and it's pretty much spot-on. The console even comes with overlays for the controllers! I was so pumped about it.

Longest wait from shortest trailer, movie category. I was partially let down and partially elated when the teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out. The elation eventually won out over the disappointment, though it would've been great to see Han, Leia, Luke, and Chewie in there.

A tribute to Grandma Adams. We said goodbye to Grandma Adams this year. She was 89 years old, and there will never be another like her.

Grandma was never shy about giving her opinion on something. She had, as my mom liked to say, "no filter." She attended countless baseball and basketball games where she always calmly gave her opinions to the umpires and referees. One of my fondest memories is when she took my brother and I to see Transformers: The Movie and had no idea what to do with us when we started bawling over the death of Optimus Prime. I don't think she ever took us to another movie.

Grandma made the best fried potatoes and hamburgers I'll ever eat. When you went to visit her, food was mandatory. It didn't matter if you'd just eaten or were on a diet, Grandma would whip up a hamburger and fried potatoes and insist you have a Coke with it. She loved cowboy movies, old mystery shows, and Bill O'Reilly. When it came to sports, she seldom missed an Indiana Hoosiers game and kept an eye on the Cincinnati Reds. It there was a ballgame on TV, she was probably watching it.

I fondly remember Christmas Eve at Grandma's house on the old farm. I am, in fact, wearing a fleece jacket she bought me for Christmas years ago as I write this. Even though she was on a fixed income for years, she made sure everyone had some presents under the tree. I missed the McDonald's gift certificates she bought almost every year. You don't realize how grateful you are for those things until they're gone.