Thursday, December 28, 2017

Studicus Selects 2017

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 2017 picks):

Studicus Selects 2016
Studicus Selects 2015
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

Biggest Family Addition, New Baby Category. On November 29, we welcomed little Lily into the family! She's my newest niece--the daughter of my brother-in-law Tom and sister-in-law Tiffany--and the first grandchild on my wife's side of the family. She is absolutely precious and absolutely loved! I once held her for nearly an entire hour and she didn't cry, which is a major victory. My other nieces and nephew had a tendency to cry whenever Uncle Matt held them.

Biggest Family Addition, Sister-in-Law Category. In July, the family hiked up to Charlotte, Michigan, for the grand wedding between my other brother-in-law and his bride-to-be. Matt and Leah's wedding was wonderful, even if my car's brakes went out on the way to Michigan (we made it safely and got them replaced when we got back). I even dusted off my old radio voice and served as emcee for the wedding reception, which was kind of a last-minute thing but worked out really well. It truly was a special event.

Biggest Family Addition, Reptile Category. In October, we added Willy to the family. We used to have a frog named Prince, but he died a few years ago. It's taken my wife and me a bit to get to a point where we wanted a new pet, but we reached that point this year. We first considered getting Russian tortoises, but then we discovered one of Anne's cousins had a 15-year-old turtle in need of a new home.

I never thought I'd reach a point in my life in which a turtle was walking around the house, but here I am. Willy likes to be fed by hand and enjoys burrowing under the Darth Maul inflatable chair. He's been a lot of fun and is easy to meme:

Biggest Indiegogo "Scam," Turns Out a Raspberry Pi Would've Been a Lot Easier Category. A company touted a retro gaming system that was "plug and play." They lied. Like--a lot. But I didn't know what I was doing and bought the RetroEngine Sigma, which was an Orange Pi slapped inside a Sega Genesis-like shell. The included OS sucked and I tinkered with the thing before ultimately installing RetrOrangePi, which is superior in every way. I've gotten tons of enjoyment out of it, but I would've been better off buying a more powerful Raspberry Pi.

See, I bought the RetroEngine Sigma because I didn't think I'd be smart enough to mess with a Raspberry Pi. I was completely wrong. The controllers included with the RES were cheap and the included software was buggy as hell. Thankfully, a bunch of RES users formed a Facebook group and I learned how to get the most out of the system.

Writing Year in Review. I finished three novels this year and, late in 2017, decided to self-publish an anthology of superhero short fiction I had lying around (you can find the Kindle version here or the paperback version here). My Crimonstreak series will come back in a big way thanks to Hydra Publications, which will publish all three books, including III Crimonstreak. That means those of you on the edge of your seat about the cliffhanger in II Crimsonstreak will finally get some answers. I'm still looking for a literary agent for some of my other books.

Most Surprisingly Polarizing Movie, Star Wars Category. It sounds like Star Wars: The Last Jedi was not everyone's cup of tea. That's fine. I need to see the movie a few more times to really get a feel for it. My initial impressions are mostly positive, though I didn't care much for the Canto Bight (casino world) stuff or any of the new characters (I'm referring to Holdo, Rose, and DJ--not the awesome characters introduced in The Force Awakens). I didn't get the Luke Skywalker I wanted to see--but then again, the Luke Skywalker I wanted to see wasn't in his 60s. The movie subverted all expectations and took some major risks, and you have to give it credit for that.

Most Pleasant Surprise, I Guess the Pacers Didn't Get Swindled Category. When Paul George's agent let everyone know the "beloved" Pacers star wanted to play in Los Angeles, the Pacers found themselves in a bind. It's kind of hard to trade someone when you have no leverage. However, the Pacers worked a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder that shipped PG to OKC for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. NBA analysts said the Pacers got swindled. In reality, it's worked out really well: Oladipo has turned into a freaking star and Sabonis has been fantastic. I've loved watching this team play.

Most Peyton Manning-esque Injury Season, Indianapolis Colts Category. The Colts were an absolute mess this year. I thought Andrew Luck would probably play at some point this year, but I was 100% wrong. Shoulder surgery and lingering issues with the shoulder injury relegated him to the injured reserve in November. The Colts, in the midst of a rebuild, kept most games close but usually screwed something up in the end to lose most of their games. Props to poor Jacoby Brissett, the young quarterback/tackling dummy the Colts traded for when it became clear Luck wasn't coming back soon--and that Scott Tolzien wasn't gonna cut it. May he spend all of the offseason in a Jacuzzi or bacta tank. At least Indy will have a high draft pick.

Best Star Wars Accessory, Vintage Inflatable Chair Category. Earlier this year, I related a story to my wife about the Darth Maul inflatable chair that I had in college. I set it up and used it a lot, but the chair got a puncture somehow and I had to throw it out. What did Anne do? She searched for a Darth Maul chair on eBay and bought one! He now sits proudly in the living room. Oddly enough, he's one of Willy's favorite hiding spots. The dude loves to burrow beneath the dark lord.

Best Membership, Large Retail Warehouse Category. It's safe to say Anne and I love our local Costco. Her parents bought us a membership for Christmas last year and we finally activated it in January. There's just something about buying six months' worth of toilet paper that I find immensely satisfying. They also sell a fantastic bottled root beer--and it pairs well with "The Mix" popcorn, which is sold in giant bags. Okay, well, everything at Costco is sold in giant quantities.

Most Laborious Installation Process, Basketball Goal Category. In June, my brother assembled a team to put together a new basketball goal for his "son and daughter." That team, coincidentally, consisted of him, my dad, and me. It took us hours to put the darn thing together. Seriously, it fought us every step of the way. We played a few games of HORSE on it, and then took a little break. Dad and I then watched as my brother shot baskets by himself and realized he'd completely scammed us. The basketball hoop wasn't for my niece and nephew at all. Hope you're enjoying it, Greg.

Most Necessary Upgrade, Upstairs Bathroom Category. It's safe to say Anne and I pretty much hated the way our upstairs bathroom looked. Thing is, we're the only people who see it so we didn't do much about it. Then one day Anne's dad decided he was going to redo the upstairs bathroom. He and my brother-in-law Tom worked on it for a month or so. It turned out great! The only drawback: having to trudge downstairs to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Best Concert, Anne's 2016 Christmas Gift Category. Anne and I went to see Neil Diamond in May at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It was her Christmas gift last year. The man still knows how to put on a great show! Our only complaint was that our seats were in a section of Bankers Life that was under renovation; as a result, the stadium seats were replaced with folding chairs. That didn't put a damper on the concert, however. Diamond, 76, sang all his hits and saved his best for the encore ("Sweet Caroline," "Cracklin' Rosie," "America," and "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show"). He also brought a nice touch to the Indy show, singing "Back Home Again in Indiana." His piano player, Tom Hensley, grew up in the Bloomington area.

Movie Year in Review. As usual, Anne and I went to see plenty of movies in 2017. We saw a lot of comic book movies. Here are some capsule reviews (you may encounter some SPOILERS):

Logan.  Since X-Men continuity is pretty much broken, you can do pretty much anything you want with a character like Wolverine. This movie felt more like a pseudo-Western than anything, but we got some great performances from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart in what is supposed to be the swansong for Logan and Charles Xavier. Ultra violent, my only nag would be the use of a cloned Logan in the third act.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2. I enjoyed seeing Star-Lord and the gang back in action, but I think Vol. 1 is the better film in the series so far. Make no mistake, this one was packed with some great moments and Kurt Russell and Mantis were welcome additions, but it didn't feel quite as solid as its predecessor. It did have one of the best lines of the year: "I'm Mary Poppins, y'all!" RIP, Yondu Udonta.

Wonder Woman. The DC movie universe introduced us to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman in haphazard fashion during last year's laborious Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but we finally got to see Wondy in her own movie. This movie basically serves as the Captain America: The First Avenger of the DC universe, eschewing the WWII setting for WWI. Gadot was pitch-perfect as the titular character and brought Chris Pine along for the ride. The final battle devolved into that Doomsday/CGI-heavy fight thing the DC loves, but the movie was thrilling and charming enough that a weak final battle can be overlooked (kind of like the final fight in Iron Man, which, let's be honest, wasn't that great of a battle).

Spider-Man: Homecoming. Want some Tony Stark in your Spider-Man? No? Too bad! I really like what Marvel did with the latest theatrical version of Spidey. Tom Holland was a lot of fun in Captain America: Civil War (if introduced a little haphazardly, like Wonder Woman), and he shines in this movie. Add in some Tony Stark, a little Happy Hogan, a great villain in Michael Keaton, and it truly was a memorable homecoming for the web-slinger.

Thor: Ragnorak. Probably the most fun you'll have in theaters this year, Thor: Ragnorak brought back the god of thunder and his brother Loki (he's adopted) for an intergalactic romp packed with lots of laughs and plenty of "Hulk smash!" Most of the gags landed, with my favorite being the "Get Help" scam Thor and Loki have obviously run tons of times. Too bad about Asgard, though. Wait...I hear it's a people and not a place or something? Also, we hit peak Goldblum in this one.

Justice League. The tone was all over the place, the product of two different directors with divergent styles and goals plus lots of interference from Warner Bros. That said, I thought Justice League was a lot of fun. The movie had lots of ground to cover and felt rushed because of the two-hour runtime and the number of characters smashed into the plot; it needed some more time in the cooker and a little longer runtime to make it all coalesce. I liked the new characters (the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman) and was glad to see Superman return. Audiences didn't respond that well to the movie or poor Henry Cavill's CGI'd upper lip.

The LEGO Batman Movie. Pretty much a series of extended Batman-ish skits, this one was a lot of fun. I loved Robin in this movie ("Hello secret camera!") and all the shout-outs to the different past versions of Batman. The only complaint: this movie could've stood to step back for a minute to take a breath.

Assassin's Creed. We saw it although I barely remember anything about it.

Beauty and the Beast. Disney hits another remake out of the park with this live-action-ish version of its Best Picture-nominated animated musical. My favorite part of the movie was Luke Evans' Gaston. Most of the big moments landed, and I even liked the new songs.

The Boss Baby. Alec Baldwin voices a baby. Another one I barely remember.

The Fate of the Furious. Charlize Theron had weird hair. Bad guy Jason Statham is now one of the good guys. I don't know any of the characters' names aside from Vin Diesel's, whose name is Dom. Everyone else I refer to as the actor who plays them. Oh, and The Rock threw a torpedo. On the ice.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. There were a couple Game of Thrones actors in this one, including Littlefinger. Jude Law had fun. I'm not sure anyone else did.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. This one felt more like the first one, which is a compliment. They wisely tamped down on Johnny Depp and let some of the other characters take the spotlight.

Dunkirk. In many ways, Dunkirk is the war movie you don't expect. Christopher Nolan tells the story in multiple parts that are shown chronologically out of order and then come together near the end. Artfully done and masterfully acted, you'll be disappointed if you expected something a little more traditional from a narrative standpoint like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers.

Despicable Me 3. I liked the first two, but when a movie series goes the "secret twin brother" route, you know they're out of ideas.

War for the Planet of the Apes. Astounding visuals and surprisingly compelling characters make this an incredible finale for the three-film rebooted Apes series. Andy Serkis will probably never win an award for his work as Caesar, but he totally should.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie. Like LEGO Batman, this is pretty much a series of extended skits in LEGO form. Pretty entertaining but also kind of forgettable, although I did have a pretty good time.

Murder on the Orient Express. This adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie boasted an A-list cast. A couple relatives of mine said they fell asleep during the movie, but I found it pretty compelling.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

My review | Star Wars: The Last Jedi


Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie ever made.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the worst Star Wars movie ever made.

There is no middle ground.

That seems to be the general reaction to the latest addition to the Star Wars saga. It's a divisive film. In some ways, it takes the series off in bold new directions; in other ways it serves as a big "FU" to longtime Star Wars fans. It's big, bold, audacious, tragic, disappointing, nonsensical, brilliantly written, terribly written, and both builds upon and destroys the sturdy foundation built by The Force Awakens.

Here are my thoughts on the movie.

Kylo Ren. How did this guy become such a compelling character? He was an easily memed "Vader fanboy" in the TFA, but The Last Jedi turns him into an incredible villain. He is haunted by his past but is determined to destroy it. In fact, I believe that's the central message of the movie: "Let the past die. Kill it if you have to." He pulls a fast one on Supreme Leader Snoke and kills him while trying to make Rey his own apprentice so they can rule the galaxy. It, um, doesn't work out.

Rey. She is so certain that the "Legend of Luke Skywalker" can save the Resistance, but she finds out the reality is something else entirely. Still, she knows the situation is dire and refuses to give up. She follows the Jedi Master around "Stairmaster Island" and tries to convince him to train her in the ways of the Force. Like Luke in ESB, she's headstrong and concerned about the fate of her friends. She rushes off to save them and hopes she'll be able to find goodness in Kylo. She's very, very wrong.

Luke Skywalker. It was fantastic seeing Mark Hamill back on the big screen. I didn't get the Luke Skywalker I wanted, but I also understand I got the Luke Skywalker this new generation of Star Wars movies needed. He is haunted by his past and by his own legend. He saved the galaxy only to see evil rise again in his nephew. Luke resolves to stay on the sidelines until prodding from Rey and R2-D2 convinces him to train her. It's a wonderful character arc, even if it doesn't satisfy 30+ years of expectations.

I'll be honest: I wanted to see Luke wreck shop and ignite the green lightsaber. I wanted to see him stare down a hundred First Order stormtroopers and dispatch them with a single gesture. I wanted him to raise his hand and collapse those First Order walkers, deflecting their blaster bolts with his lightsaber.

That isn't what happened. Instead, Luke Skywalker cut himself off from the Force and went to the island to die. He couldn't live with what he almost did to his nephew; he couldn't live with what happened to his students at the Jedi training temple. He ran and hid, which is a very un-Luke Skywalker thing to do. This guy blew up the Death Star! He survived two duels with Darth Vader--and won the second one! He brought down an AT-AT on his own!

But young Luke Skywalker did those things. He, like Obi-Wan before him (let's think about this in terms of OT Obi-Wan and not prequel Obi-Wan) thought he could train new Jedi as well as Master Yoda--just as Obi-Wan thought he could train Anakin. Luke was wrong, just like Obi-Wan. Luke bought into his own legend, and the results were catastrophic. As the Jedi of the Old Republic fell by their own hubris, so did Luke Skywalker.

Having Luke fly his X-Wing onto Crait and confront Kylo Ren and the First Order wouldn't have made sense for the Luke Skywalker the movie presented us with. Again: "Let the past die. Kill it if you must."

In the end, Luke shows he's the most powerful Jedi ever by using a Force projection to buy time for Rey, Leia, and the Resistance. The exertion is too much for him, and he becomes one with the Force. It's a bittersweet moment and a fitting end for him. I hope we'll see Force Ghost Luke in Episode IX.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked Luke's character arc. It made sense for him to go into exile--just as Yoda and Obi-Wan did.

Porgs. They were adorable and didn't get in the way of the movie. That scene where Chewie was about to eat a cooked porg was really funny.

Snokescreen. Supreme Leader Snoke was positioned as the new Emperor Palpatine, the kind of uber-powerful Force-wielder who'd pull the strings and bring the galaxy to its knees. I expected him to be dispatched in the final movie of this new trilogy, but that's not what happened at all. Instead, Snoke was Kylo Ren's final test. Kylo turned the tables on him and killed him. Like Palpatine before him, Snoke's overconfidence was his weakness. Now Kylo Ren is the supreme leader and ultimate villain of this trilogy.

General Leia. It's a shame we won't get to see Carrie Fisher complete Leia's arc. She was great in this movie, bringing gravitas and desperation to the plight of the Resistance. I love the idea of Leia using the Force, though I'm not sure I'm thrilled with how the movie executed that. I also kind of rolled my eyes at using the well-worn trope of putting someone in a coma to provide some artificial drama.

The Force. From Luke's Force projection to Jedi Skype and Force Ghosts that can interact with the physical world, TLJ expanded the Force in some exciting ways. I liked that it made that "hokey religion'' a little more mystical in the process. The Force is spiritual again. The truth is, we don't know that much about the Force; the movies don't tell us much about how it works. The movie shows us that the Force is much larger than we thought.

Things go wrong. This is the second act of a three-act story, so stuff is supposed to go wrong. Oh, man, does it go wrong. Poe's plan results in lots of people dying, Rey's plan to get Luke on her side goes wrong, Rey's plan to redeem Kylo goes sideways, Finn's mission to beat the First Order backfires. We're used to seeing these types of gambits go in the heroes' favor, but that didn't happen this time.

Artoo's message. Luke is beaten and broken in this movie, but Artoo pulls a "cheap" move by bringing back Princess Leia's message to Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. That moment tugged at my heartstrings.

Yoda. Honestly, I initially thought puppet Yoda still looked kind of weird. I also thought, while he was cantankerous in Empire, that his goofball shtick was a little out of character. However, as is the case with Yoda, there's always more to it than you think. His ability to set the Force tree on fire also gave some added depth to Obi-Wan's warning to Luke before he rushed off to Cloud City: "If you choose to face Vader, you will do it alone. I cannot interfere."

I always wondered why Obi-Wan said that. I mean, the dude's a blue ghost! What could he do--appear in front of Vader to tick him off? Now I see it's possible that Obi-Wan could've physically intervened to help Luke. It's interesting to see a new spin on a movie that's nearly 40 years old.

Still, it was good to see Yoda and to learn he has more lessons to teach.

Canto Bight. Ask just about anyone what didn't work for them in this movie--even people who loved it--and they'll probably say the Canto Bight subplot dragged. I think the movie really struggled with finding something for Finn to do and wanted to find a way to expand Rose's character. I don't think Canto Bight came off the way the director wanted.

This should've worked like the cantina scene or Jabba's palace/sail barge. Or, really, even the "sports bar" the Attack of the Clones. It didn't work at all. It felt tacked on and I never felt like Finn & Rose were in any real danger. Secret Rebel Alliance decoder rings? I know some senators used to wear them back in the day, but they were never introduced in the movies, so that fell flat. The concept of war profiteering and playing both the First Order and the Resistance against one another to make money was an interesting idea, but the execution was lacking.

I think the whole subplot needed to be streamlined, reconsidered, or cut entirely. Mostly because...

The Canto Bight subplot was useless. We didn't gain much from Canto Bight. It didn't reveal much about Finn's or Rose's character to the audience. They never had to make a tough decision during the whole thing. Aaaaaand they really shouldn't have gone there in the first place because Admiral Holdo shouldn't have withheld information from Poe Dameron. I get it: Poe's a hothead. His refusal to follow Leia's orders at the beginning put the Resistance in peril. His decision to give Finn and Rose the go-ahead on their mission almost resulted in the destruction of the whole Resistance.

Unless Holdo thought Poe was a spy, however, she shouldn't have withheld the information about their real strategy from him. All it did was make a mess of things--a mess you're supposed to blame on Poe, Finn, and Rose, but was really Holdo's screw-up. Canto Bight was plot-driven, not character-driven, and that's why it failed.

What a waste of Laura Dern. Laura Dern's a great actress. Holdo should've been an interesting character. She wasn't. Why cast Laura Dern if you're gonna throw her away in one movie? I mean, she went out in a hell of a way with the hyperspace battering ram thing (which was awesome!), but her character meant nothing. She was just an obstacle to Poe's character and a tool to provide some growth for him and propel the whole Canto Bight thing.

You know what they should've done here? Instead of creating Admiral Holdo specifically to throw her away in a self-sacrifice that was cool but had little emotional stakes, give that moment to another character. I would've put Admiral Ackbar in charge of the fleet after Leia was injured (although I think I wouldn't have put Leia in a coma in the first place!). Instead of having Ackbar die like a chump, have him slide into the Holdo role and make the big sacrifice. It would've had more emotional impact on Star Wars fans because, though he doesn't have a ton of screen time in Return of the Jedi, the audience knows who he is.

DJ. After first viewing of The Last Jedi, I didn't care for Benecio Del Toro's character. However, I missed a key scene because I had to use the restroom: the scene where he shows Finn that the rich people on Canto Bight are selling weapons to both the Resistance and the First Order. He tells Finn not to "join" anything. That scene makes a huge difference for his character, and I had an incomplete reading of him the first time around.

I liked him much more the second time I saw the movie. Yeah, he sold out our heroes, but he pretty much made it clear that's what he does. I liked how he occupies that gray area in the Star Wars universe. He suggested something along the lines of "they blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow" as he was leaving. I wonder if we'll see him again.

But even if DJ was a good addition to the movie, that still doesn't make up for the Canto Bight subplot.

The First Order's plan was pretty dumb. The Resistance ships could stay out of range of the First Order big ships because they were faster at sublight speeds. Got it. No problem. The First Order didn't want to send starfighters out of range because starfighters rely on the protection of capital ships to operate at peak efficiency. Okay, got it. No problem. The First Order knows the rebels will run out of fuel soon and will just keep chasing them until they run out. Um, okay.

So why didn't the First Order, knowing full well the heading of the Resistance ships, jump a few capital ships on an intercept course that would've sandwiched the Resistance between two First Order fleets? I mean, maybe the First Order was too busy using the rest of its resources to subjugate the entire universe, but I would think destroying the Resistance would be priority one.

I suppose there's also the likelihood that the destruction of Starkiller Base crippled the First Order's military, but it seems pretty clear to me that the First Order is incredibly powerful and well-equipped, even with the loss of Starkiller Base.

Just a little food for thought there.

The score. As I'm writing this up, I'm listening to the musical soundtrack, and it's really good. John Williams brought back a lot of music from the original trilogy and used it in some different ways and arrangements. I liked The Force Awakens soundtrack (especially Rey's theme and the Resistance theme), but I think The Last Jedi is a stronger effort. The score feels like it plays a much more integral role in the movie than in Episode VII.

In conclusion. The first time I saw The Last Jedi, I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't really tell if I enjoyed it or not. I had to reflect on it for a few days before writing out my thoughts. A second viewing really provided some clarity. I still have some issues with general plotting--mostly anything that doesn't involve Luke Skywalker/Rey/Kylo Ren has some structural gaffes and logic problems. That said, the fact that Luke Skywalker embraces his legend at the end makes everything worth it.

And when Luke steps into the cave on Crait and has his moment with Leia, I got emotional. Knowing what's coming really has an impact, and we're allowed to once again embrace the Legend of Luke Skywalker.

And I didn't even mention how awesome the throne room scene with Rey, Kylo, and the praetorian guards was!