Monday, December 23, 2019

Review | Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

It's here!

Episode IX of the Star Wars saga arrived last weekend in the form of The Rise of Skywalker, the J.J. Abrams-directed "final" installment in the (recently made up) "Skywalker Saga."

First off, I had a blast.

I understand some fans have a lot of complaints. That's fine. This movie stuff is subjective. These days, people think we have to have a "hive mind" on big-ticket genre stuff, and it's pretty ridiculous.

Love The Last Jedi? You're not a real Star Wars fan.

Hate The Last Jedi? You're not a real Star Wars fan.

That's kind of the world we live in these days, this hyper-polarized "us vs. them" mentality that makes it impossible to discuss a movie on its merits. It's either "The Best Thing Ever" or "The Worst Thing Ever" with no room for criticism or nuance.

The unfortunate thing about this movie is that you can't really discuss it without discussing The Last Jedi. In a normal world, this wouldn't be an issue because, naturally, you'd look at the second movie in a trilogy and see how it informs the third movie in the same trilogy.

The problem is The Last Jedi and how people feel about it.

I'll just say this: The Rise of Skywalker felt like a Star Wars movie to me in ways The Last Jedi didn't at times. How you will feel about the new movie will largely depend on how you felt about The Last Jedi. If you hated it but liked The Force Awakens, you'll probably like this one. If you felt The Last Jedi challenged the Star Wars status quo and set a bold new direction for the franchise, you probably won't like it that much.

In general, though, I'm very positive on The Rise of Skywalker. Let's dive a little deeper below...

First off all, the biggest buy-in for this movie is that Emperor Palpatine is back. It's asking a lot from the audience, given that this wasn't really set up in any meaningful way in the movies that came before. There is a lot of canon/expanded universe stuff about the Emperor's plans for the Empire after his death--he definitely had something cooking--but this is the primary thing fans have to accept and just kind of "go with" at the beginning.

(One of these days, I'll get into a discussion about Disney's befuddling approach to creating this sequel trilogy without giving it a unified vision, but that'll have to wait.)

If you can accept that Palpatine--or at least his spirit--survived at the end of Return of the Jedi, most things in this movie will work. If you can't, then it probably won't.

While it's never explicitly stated in the sequel trilogy that Palpatine's alive, it does make sense. I don't think a powerful being like Snoke could exist in the universe without Palpatine knowing about it. Palpatine says he created Snoke--cloned him--and that would work a lot better if Snoke had been portrayed differently in The Last Jedi. Palpatine's plan revolved around resurrection through his granddaughter, but I got the feeling Snoke planned to destroy Rey if he couldn't turn her, so that contradicts the Emperor's plot. In fact, Snoke was going to have Kylo kill her until Kylo, um, sort of swerved from that. I can't really buy the Emperor "foreseeing" all of that, but, you know, okay.

In The Last Jedi, "master of subversion" Rian Johnson failed to pick up a lot of threads from The Force Awakens or took them in a much different direction (some in ways that infuriated fans). In turn, Abrams strays quite a bit from the things Johnson set up to close out the trilogy, which really feels like two movies that are similar in tone (The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker) with a middle child that kind of does its own thing (The Last Jedi). To me, you have to think of The Rise of Skywalker as a direct sequel to The Force Awakens that sort of acknowledges that some things from The Last Jedi happened.

It's not a smooth transition in tone at all. I have no problems admitting that.

Not having an overall plan for this trilogy showed. You couldn't avoid it. Tonally, Episodes VII, VIII, and IX are all over the place, with The Last Jedi really feeling out of place since Johnson has such a distinctive creative voice. TLJ is meandering and takes its time with characterization while Abrams wants, in George Lucas "faster, more intense!" fashion, to move things along, boom, boom, boom. There are quiet moments in Abrams' films, yes, but overall, things are propulsive. You can't say the same about Johnson's approach in The Last Jedi.

So, okay, you get the point, right? This trilogy has to have a messy ending because of the messy way its individual parts were assembled and built upon one another.

That said, I'm a big fan of The Rise of Skywalker! As I wrote earlier, it felt like Star Wars to me in ways the last movie didn't. The main characters spent a lot of time together, something we didn't get a ton of in the previous two movies. There are some incredible callbacks. The Kylo Ren/Ben Solo stuff is phenomenal (and Adam Driver is incredible). Daisy Ridley shines as Rey. The dialogue is fun and quippy, classic characters get incredible moments, and we learn Leia went through full Jedi training.

Let's dig into a few different topics...

Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. If anyone comes out of this sequel trilogy in flawless fashion, it's Adam Driver's character. He's incredible. He goes from villain to doubting villain to lost hero to redeemed hero in a good three-movie arc. His internal struggle between the darkness he clings to and the light we know must be within is one of the most compelling things in the trilogy. I feared a redemption arc for Kylo Ren, indeed I dreaded it for many reasons, but it worked.

Rey Jakku Scavenger Jedi Trainee Palpatine Skywalker (fit that on a business card). Since The Force Awakens, we understood there was something special about Rey. She was immensely gifted in the Force, much like Anakin and Luke. Many fans thought she had links to a classic character, such as the Skywalkers, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Palpatine (yep, some people thought it a long time ago). She gets her answer in The Last Jedi--she's no one, her parents are nothing (although Kylo's admission, "Not to me," is very stirring). The Rise of Skywalker goes a different direction here, fudging the "no one" stuff by saying her parents chose to be no one because she was Palpatine's granddaughter and they wanted to protect her from him. I will say that in The Last Jedi, Luke notes that Rey went "straight to the dark" when training her--something you could view as evidence of her bloodline.

Giving Rey lineage is controversial for some fans who liked Rian Johnson's approach. However, I feel like The Force Awakens wasn't going in that direction at all. Abrams reclaimed this for himself instead of going with what Johnson established. The message, though, is essentially the same: no matter who Rey is, she gets to choose her path, either as no one or as the granddaughter of the most powerful Sith who ever lived.

I find it kind of weird, though, that Leia knew this and never told her. Given the Skywalker family history, that seems kind of hypocritical to hold that back, no matter the "certain point of view." On the other hand, I can also see that Leia felt it was important for Rey to choose her own path without having to worry about the baggage that goes along with being a Palpatine.

I'm not mixed on the lineage--if you're going to make Palpatine the big bad again, it makes a lot of sense--but it did feel a hint clumsy in execution.

Emperor Palpatine. How is Palpatine back? I'll go with "ancient Sith magic," "cloning," and "because." Don't overthink this because the movie sure as heck doesn't. Again, you have to "just go with it" and accept that, in a world with the powerful, mystical "Force," things like this can happen. I couldn't help but think of the old Dark Empire comic in which the Emperor had the ability to project his consciousness into a series of clone bodies. The Sith were obsessed with learning the secret of immortality, and based on the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis, I think Palpatine mastered this (until at the end?).

Oh, there were also Sith cultists or acolytes or something.

Listen, it was a pleasure having Ian McDiarmid back. I don't think that was the Emperor's original body but rather a cloned vessel that was malformed and deformed by dark side corruption. The Emperor was crazy powerful, too, summoning a Force Lightning Storm capable of destroying capital ships! Was he ever that powerful? In the old Expanded Universe, he could definitely pull off these types of things.

C-3PO. If you liked the droid pairing of C-3PO and R2-D2, you didn't get to see them spend much time together. Threepio tells Artoo he's been his best friend, and it's a poignant moment, especially after you find out Threepio has to get his memory wiped. I thought Threepio was the best he's been since Return of the Jedi. I'm also glad Artoo was able to restore his primary memory, although "mind-wiped" Threepio was pretty funny. When they fell into the sand cavern and Poe asks everyone if they're okay and Threepio tells him he's fine even though Poe didn't mention him by name, I laughed.

Is this Star Wars or National Treasure? The first part of the movie involves a series of fetch quests for an important item (the Sith Wayfinder that leads to Palpatine's new digs on Exogol). There's a dagger that plays an important role, too, and our heroes have to go from one place to another to decode ruins and find the next clue. I felt like, if this trilogy had been planned out, this idea could have played a small but important role in the previous movies.

That Han Solo scene. My favorite 20-minute span of the movie involves the lightsaber fight between Rey and Kylo Ren, Leia's death, Ben Solo's redemption, and Rey's return to Ahch-To to visit with the Force ghost of Luke Skywalker.

I couldn't believe Harrison Ford came back for a final go-round as Han Solo. I imagine him, in his grizzled voice, telling Disney to keep backing up money trucks until the pile of cash was large enough to suit him.

I loved, loved, loved this scene. Adam Driver sells it so hard here. The conflict. The regret. The pain. It was a perfect mirror to The Force Awakens, only this time, Ben Solo makes the right decision. He could've turned away from the Dark Side earlier and returned to his parents, but he did what he thought he had to do to serve his dark master. The fact that he got to make amends, even if it was just to a memory of his father, was deeply touching. I cried in the theater; Anne gave me a napkin to dry my eyes.

If this scene hadn't worked, Ben's redemption wouldn't have worked. But to have his mother gather her remaining Force energy to reach him and then have him talk to his father was very impactful.

That Luke Skywalker scene. Rey's return to Ahch-To was expected, but I thought she'd go there specifically to consult Luke. Instead, after learning her true heritage, she goes there to live out the rest of her life without having any impact on the galaxy. She even throws away her lightsaber, which Force Ghost Luke catches (giving a not-that-subtle dig about how a Jedi should take better care of their weapon). I was glad to see Luke come back as a Force ghost, and I was glad Rey got to see him again. This was an evolution of his arc in The Last Jedi, in which he learned he was wrong to give up on the Jedi and the galaxy at large. And then he raised his own X-Wing like Master Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (music cue included) so Rey could fly it. Red 5, standing by!

Jedi Master Leia. Luke trained Leia! It's been a thing since after Return of the Jedi, yet no one mentioned it. I'm fine with a retcon, especially a good one, and I feel this is a great one. It also fixes the out-of-left-field Mary Poppins scene from The Last Jedi. At the time, I thought it was just a reaction from Leia, who was strong in the Force. However, The Rise of Skywalker proves she was powerful in the Force and had been trained. Probably one of the changes TLJ diehards will support.

You broke my heart, Chewie. Chewie's breakdown upon learning about Leia's death may have been the most heartbreaking visual in the new trilogy. This really hit me--the mighty Chewbacca driven to his knees in pain and anguish. Hasn't this poor Wookiee lost enough?

Lando! Billy Dee Williams had the time of his life. I liked how he first appeared in disguise, which reminded me of Return of the Jedi. I kept wondering, though, it he'd stayed on the desert planet for years waiting for someone to pick up on Luke's search for the Sith Wayfinder. However, he does mention in a throwaway line that Leia contacted him, so I'm guessing he simply beat Rey and the others to the planet and was watching out for them. God bless you, Billy Dee.

Wedge! The most exciting two-second cameo of my life happened when Wedge Freaking Antilles showed up in the movie. He'd appeared in some of the canon Star Wars novels, but Denis Lawson turned down the chance to reprise the role in The Force Awakens. I'm glad he came back...even if I wanted MORE WEDGE ANTILLES. It gave me the same feeling I had when Gold Leader and Red Leader showed up in Rogue One.

Feel the Force, Finn. Finn's Force-sensitive, right? I feel like this seed was planted in The Force Awakens and abandoned in The Last Jedi in favor of whatever the hell Canto Bight was supposed to be. Was that what he wanted to tell Rey? Why didn't we get closure on that point? Did he want to tell her he loved her? We may never know.

Poe Dameron, intergalactic spice runner and spurned ladies' man. Will someone kiss Poe already? I don't think it's a big deal that Poe used to run spice (it's a sort-of-contradiction of established canon, but it still kind of works). I do think it's a big deal that Zorii Bliss is immune to his obvious charms. Zorii was pretty cool, by the way, as was Babu Frik (freakin' adorable!).

Voices of the Past: At the beginning of the movie, Rey begs past Jedi to "be with me." No one answers. She feels she's alone. At the end of the movie, when it seems like all hope is lost, Jedi throughout the history of Star Wars deliver a poignant pep talk. We've got Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), Yoda (Frank Oz), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness), Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson)--basically your Jedi All-Star Team.

But that's not all! Some deep cuts are in there, too, along with characters who got a lot more screen time in TV shows like The Clone Wars and Rebels: Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Aayla Secura (Jennifer Hale), Luminara Unduli (Olivia d’Abo), and Adi Gallia (Angelique Perrin).

Forced Perspective. I feel like the menu of movie-used Force powers expanded significantly here. We got Lightsaber Throw (Darth Vader used a version of this in Jedi), Object Transference, Force Heal (a staple of video games and also seen in The Mandalorian), Force Lightning Storm, and Dark Side Transference. As a longtime player of Star Wars video games, I found this pretty satisfying.

The Millennium Falcon's dish is round again. The rectangular dish got knocked off at the end of The Last Jedi. The replacement is circular, which means the venerable old ship looks like it did in the original trilogy. Not a huge deal--just something I noticed.

A new lightsaber. Rey obtains a "new" lightsaber in the form of Leia's old one when Luke gives it to her on Ahch-To. This comes in handy when the redeemed Ben Solo rushes to Exogol to help Rey deal with Palpatine. I love the fact Leia got deep enough into her training that she made her own lightsaber. I also liked that Rey went back to Tatooine and buried the sabers--while showing off one she'd clearly made for herself. Rey's lightsaber featured a yellow (or yellow-orange) blade and appeared to be made from part of her quarterstaff.

Brother and Sister. Luke and Leia are Force ghosts now. Pretty cool, I thought.

Leia footage. I'd be curious what someone who didn't know Carrie Fisher was dead would think of her role in the movie. I think the effects artists did a spectacular job of bringing her back and featuring her. They just didn't have a ton to work with, and it showed a little bit because her reactions and lines were never very specific. Still, as far as reverse-engineered performances go, I think it was successful overall.

Humor. Most of the humor really landed. I think this is something Abrams is very good at--keeping the action going and letting the characters react accordingly. Threepio had some great lines, and Finn and Poe also landed some laugh-out-loud moments (Poe's flashlight comes to mind). Even Ben Solo got in on it--when he jumped from a height on Exogol and landed with an "Ow!" That guy had a tough day.

The Rise of Skywalker isn't perfect! A few nitpicks...

Knights of a Renaissance Fair. The Knights of Ren were Sith cosplayers and nothing more. They looked cool, stood around, and got their asses handed to him when Ben got a lightsaber. This is one of those things Abrams set up, Johnson ignored, and then Abrams didn't have enough time to really dig into because there was so much going on. I'm sure people would've viewed it as a repetition of the really awesome throne room scene from The Last Jedi, but it would've been great if Rey and Ben had to cut through the Knights of Ren together to defeat Palpatine.

And Now Star Destroyers are World Destroyers. Palpatine never met a world-killing superweapon he didn't like. I can buy that decades of construction in the Unknown Regions led to a large fleet of Star Destroyers; I didn't like that each one had a Starkiller Base/Death Star strapped to the underbelly. Isn't a really large fleet crewed by evil Sith personnel enough of a threat, especially given Palpatine's return? It just felt a little excessive, but then again, Palpatine's never been one for understatement.

Death Fakeouts. The movie leans into three pretty significant death fakeouts: Chewie, C-3PO, and Ben Solo. Each of them comes back (Chewie and C-3PO are just fine while Ben eventually dies after he comes back to help Rey on Exogol). I felt like these could've been handled a little more deftly. The Chewbacca one, in particular, could've been excised with little detriment to the plot.

I'm glad C-3PO's memory got restored and am uncertain why we had to make such a big deal about this when it was clear Artoo would have a thumb drive containing Threepio's programming. It undercut the drama and sacrifice.

Reylo. The kiss at the end did not ruin the movie at all. It's not the worst decision in the world. I just felt like it pandered a little bit too much to Reylo fans; it felt excessive. I think it would've been far more effective for Ben to die with their feelings unrequited--it would've been tragic that way. I don't think it was out of character--Rey and Ben certainly had feelings for each other--but a little restraint here would've really paid off.

Plan? What Plan? Rian Johnson didn't leave a lot to be wrapped up, plot-wise, in The Last Jedi. It's mostly a character movie and not plot-heavy. The middle part of a story is supposed to set things up for the home stretch; TLJ doesn't do this. That meant whoever wrapped up the sequel trilogy had to pretty much come up with a plot from scratch. This led to the "Palpatine's back" plot and the fetch quest setup at the beginning. The characters had to have a goal, and Abrams did his best to provide one.

To be clear, the idea that George Lucas had a definitive storyline in mind for the original trilogy is a myth. He made it up as he went along, and it worked spectacularly. Star Wars is pretty much an accident. The major difference--and it's a MAJOR difference--is that Lucas' creative vision oversaw Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi (and The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith). This sequel trilogy lacks that singular creative vision, which is why there is so much tonal dissonance between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi and the lack of continuing plot threads from The Last Jedi into The Rise of Skywalker.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Studicus Selects 2019

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 2019 picks):

Studicus Selects 2018
Studicus Selects 2017
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, Cute Dog Category. I have resisted getting a dog for years. I grew up with two dogs, Runt and Kodie, and absolutely loved them. They were outside dogs, however. Anne and I live in a condo. The idea of sharing a living space with an animal was never something I wanted to do. But, you know what? Things change.

While I was at work on June 24, Anne emailed me a photo of a dog named Howard at the Animal Protection League in Anderson:
This is a chiweenie! 🙂 LOL! Omg... I'm in love. He's adorable. He's a mix of a chihuahua and a dachshund. He's old enough that he's housebroken and mellow. Surprisingly, Chihuahuas and dachshunds were on the list of best breeds for people who work. We should visit him. He's precious!  
This was our introduction to Howard
Anne has said several times that the photo "just spoke to her." It must have spoken to me, too, because I relented and said we should go visit him. We traveled to Anderson on June 29 to pick him up and life hasn't been the same since. 

Howard is a fantastic dog, and we're so happy to have him in our family. I could write several paragraphs about him--several--but instead I'll just post a few more pictures.

Anne, Howard, and me at the Animal Protection League in Anderson, Indiana, on June 29, 2019. This is just before we took him home.
We sometimes take Howard to doggy day care at Camp Bow Wow. He looked a little...apprehensive...about his first day...
We take Howard to Petco for grooming. They gave him a little bowtie after his first visit
Howard enjoys some sleepy time with Anne
One of my favorite photos of Howard...a very happy dog!
When it's cold outside, Howard wears this "Adidog" sweatsuit. I think it's adorable.
We dressed Howie as a taco for Halloween. He was thrilled.
A very noble dog.
Part chihuahua. Part dachshund. All hero.
Howard's a big fan of naps.
Best New Purchase, King-size Bed Category. Anne and I have had the same bed since we got married. My parents bought the queen-size bed for me as a college graduation gift in 2003. Anne and I got married in 2006--and the bed had been along with us the whole time. We finally decided to get a new one. If you've ever listened to a podcast, you'd know that Casper is the best bed out there.

But we bought a Nectar instead. It's the same concept--a memory foam mattress--but I thought Nectar was a slightly better deal. The reviews were also pretty good for it, so we decided to go with the Nectar bed. My brother-in-law Tom came over to help us set it up, and no one died, so that's good. We went with the king-size bed, and it's fantastic. Howard can sleep between Anne and me without fear of someone rolling over on him.

I have occasional back problems, and I can tell you that I look forward to go to bed every night and haven't had any back pain since the bed arrived in September.

Best Family Trip, Disney World Vacation Category. My mom has wanted to go to Disney World since, well, pretty much forever. She didn't get to go as a kid. She didn't get to go when my brother and I were young. So, she and my father took the whole family to Orlando for a magical weekend in the Magic Kingdom.

It was a fantastic trip. Absolutely unforgettable. There were so many great moments (we did a whole podcast about the trip if you want the play-by-play), but here are a few highlights:
  • Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge
  • Mad Hatter's Tea Party (spinning maniacally with my brother)
  • Splash Mountain (and the family picture)
  • Space Mountain (I got to ride twice!)
  • Building a Lightsaber (see below)
  • Star Tours (see below)
  • So much blue Powerade
  • Kali River Rapids
  • Indiana Jones Stunt Show Spectacular
Anne was STOKED for Prince Charming's Carousel
It's only a life-size AT-AT walker...
This is from the last day of our vacation in Hollywood Studios
The Adams Family...many of them in Cincinnati Reds gear...poses at Chef Mickey's
Some family members are having fun. Some are terrified. Some are ambivalent. And then there's the youngest member of the family, Ryleigh, holding her hands in the air!
The family poses for a photo after our dinner with Cinderella's family
Best Ride, Disney World Vacation Category. Look, Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run was a great ride, but Star Tours was absolutely fantastic. I rode it three times and would've ridden it three more if time allowed. I just really liked this one. The sense of speed, the way the ride threw you back into your seat and made you feel like you were really zooming around the Star Wars universe was awesome.

Best Memento, Disney World Vacation Category. Look, this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Do I regret spending $200 on a lightsaber? Absolutely not. My brother, nephew, and I traveled to Savi's Workshop in Galaxy's Edge so we could put together our own lightsabers. I chose the "Peace and Justice" model with a green kyber crystal (my nephew, a true Sith, chose "Power and Control" with a red kyber crystal). The experience was awesome! Because the lightsabers are unwieldy, we shipped them back home.

My lightsaber arrived safely in Indianapolis after its journey from Orlando.
Most Ambitious Podcast Production, The Matt Adams Podcast Category. Anne and I do a podcast that, um, kind of varies in frequency (we're going to be better about this). We usually delve into pop culture--a lot of Star Wars and Marvel stuff--but we tried some original fan fiction with a production called Six Stones to Peggy. It tells the story of Captain America's quest to return the various Infinity Stones to their rightful places and is our love letter to the MCU. You can read it or listen to it.

Best Video Game, Star Wars Category. I'm not the biggest video game player in the world. I play sporadically (with the bulk of that around Thanksgiving and Christmas). When I heard about Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order and saw the trailer, I preordered it (I never preorder games).

And, man, it was really good! I liked the exploration element (reminded me of Tomb Raider) and LOVED the little droid BD-1. I liked him so much, in fact, that I bought a BD-1 sweatshirt. The combat took some getting used to, and I dropped the difficulty level here and there to get past a particularly tough boss, but I really enjoyed the game. The story was fantastic and there were some great surprises. Check it out!

Image via Star
Best Rewatch Decision, Netflix Category. For some reason, Anne and I decided to rewatch Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix. We're on season five so far and will likely wrap up the whole series in the next month or so. That is such a great show and I'm glad we've decided to give it another watch.
Don't be so exasperated, Jean-Luc! We love the show!
Most Surprisingly Great TV Series, HBO Category. I like Zack Snyder's Watchmen and think it is a good film adaptation of a very complicated graphic novel. I also understand why he changed the ending. That said, HBO's continuation of the Watchmen graphic novel is incredible. I've been absolutely floored with how it adheres to and re-contextualizes the source material, all while grappling with some extremely weighty subject matter.

Most Intimidating Nacho, Helmet Nacho Category. I've always wanted to try the helmet nachos at Great American Ball Park--and I got my chance during a game on May 31. Even with help from my niece and nephew, we couldn't finish the whole thing. I went all cheese here, no meat or anything. It was Star Wars night, though, so we got to watch fireworks set to John Williams' epic score after the game. Plus, the Reds won.

We fought the good fight, but that is A LOT OF NACHOS
Favorite New Streaming Service, Disney+ Category. Listen, Disney owns everything you love. They have now put everything you love into a streaming service and given you even more things to love with shows like The Mandalorian and its true star, Baby Yoda. For $6.99 a month or $70 a year, it's hard to beat! Anne and I watch The Mandalorian every week and have started our own Wonderful World of Disney nights to watch old movies.

Geez, he's cute
Best Grocery Pickup Discovery, Kroger Category. It's not all that new or novel, but we've become big fans of Kroger's Clicklist service. You submit your order online, schedule a time, and then pull into special spots at Kroger. An employee will then bring your groceries to you and load them into your trunk. As an aside, did you know people in the U.K. and Australia call the trunk of a car the "boot?" I learned it from Mr. Sunday Movies

Most Used Gif in a Text, Anne Category. Anne is all about a particular gif of a dancing banana (made famous by "Peanut Butter Jelly Time"). She uses it a lot. I have seven documented cases of this being used since Nov. 21, so while it's a relatively recent phenomenon, it's here to stay. It signals that Anne is happy.

Best Streaming Cable TV Replacement, Sling Sucks Now Category. A dispute between Fox regional sports channels and Sling forced my hand this year. I canceled Sling after learning they would no longer carry Fox Sports Indiana or Fox Sports Ohio (I have to watch the Reds and Pacers!). I signed up for YouTube TV and haven't looked back since. Yes, the service is more expensive than Sling, but you don't get nickel and dimed for add-ons like Cloud DVR. The interface is pretty intuitive and I probably won't go back to Sling, even if the sports stations came back.

Writing Year in Review. This wasn't the most productive writing year I've ever had. I did finish some projects, including a G.I. Joe homage/ripoff called STARS vs. CRIMSON. I've finished a novel set in that universe along with four short stories. It's kind of fun to embrace my inner child!

This is a mock-up cover for my STARS vs. CRIMSON novel, The Miniaturizer
Movie Year in Review: As usual, Anne and I went to see plenty of movies in 2019. Here are some capsule reviews (you may encounter some SPOILERS):

Mary Poppins Returns. A 2018 release that we saw in early 2019, all I remember is that some of the songs were good and Emily Blunt was a fine substitute for Julie Andrews. And Dick Van Dyke showed up.

They Shall Not Grow Old. Peter Jackson of the Lord of the Rings movies put together this jaw-dropping documentary on World War I. He colorized some of that old, jerky newsreel footage and made The Great War come to life through the stories of the men who fought. It's amazing (we did a podcast on it).

Alita: Battle Angel: This movie based on a manga was surprisingly not awful (we did a podcast on this one). We actually had some fun! Best movie ever? Of course not...but it's a good special effects-heavy movie IF you can get past Alita's gigantic eyes. IF. 

Captain Marvel: The first of three MCU movies for 2019, this movie rewrote some MCU history and introduced a super-powerful character into the movies. We dug the 1990s vibe, the de-aging effects, the twist with the Skrulls, the humor, and mostly everything else. We still think Nick Fury should've lost his eye in a more satisfying way. Oh, we also did a podcast on this one.

Avengers: Endgame. This movie was incredible. I wrote about it in length. I laughed. I cried. I cried again. Then I laughed some more. Then I cried. But really, it was terrific. You'll be shocked that we did a podcast on this, too! Oh, and I wrote a guide to the MCU for my poor brother.

Shazam! After the crushing disappointment of Batman v. Superman, DC gave us some solid efforts in Wonder Woman and Aquaman. They also gave us Shazam!, a satisfying, fun superhero romp with heart. We enjoyed it immensely, for the most part, although a few things nagged at us. It's funny, though, and fun, and those are the most important things. Yep, podcast plug.

Aladdin. So, Disney likes to turn its animated classics into live-action spectacles that are basically the same movie. This is Aladdin, only with people. Naomi Scott is pretty much the real draw here, but Will Smith does bring some fun zaniness to the role of Genie. Really, it's not bad at all--just don't expect much variation from the original. Oh, and it made a billion dollars at the box office. 

Spider-Man: Far from Home. We really enjoyed this one, which is kind of the "coda" to Avengers: Endgame and that era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland is an international treasure. He's surrounded by a great cast, including some quality Nick Fury-ness (well, um, kind of...) and I loved, loved, loved the take on Mysterio. If I had only one complaint, it's that it would've been really cool if the Mysterio of the movie really was a hero--now that would have been a twist. And, yes, we did a podcast.

Rocketman. Anne liked this one a lot more than I did because she likes Elton John a lot more than I do. I'm still impressed that Taron Egerton did his own singing.

Toy Story 4. It was...good? I'm sure it was! Listen, the previous three Toy Story movies are among my favorites, but I thought Disney Pixar ended things well with Toy Story 3. It's sad that I barely remember this movie even though I remember enjoying it at the time. Probably need to see it again.

The Lion King. Pretty much The Lion King, animals? Hey, James Earl Jones voiced Mufasa, so I'm in. Like Aladdin, they didn't stray much from the source material. I liked a lot of the voice cast! What they did to "Be Prepared" was a travesty. And while I like Chiwetal Ejiofor, if you're going to bring back James Earl Jones, why not bring back Jeremy Irons? And, yes, podcast.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. I'm not the biggest Tarantino fan in the world, but I like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, so I thought it was worth a shot. This is kind of a slow burn movie featuring characters with great chemistry that takes a sharp left turn at the end. There is a flamethrower. Our full review, in podcast form.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. I remember Idris Elba was super-strong and there were lots of explosions and one-liners. The Rock and Statham are always watchable. I felt like the movie went maybe 20 minutes too long? Oh, Ryan Reynolds was entertaining. Listen, it's a Fast & Furious movie, okay?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers? It totally works. While not quite as great as last year's Won't You Be My Neighbor? documentary, this is still a heartfelt, feel-good movie. The story isn't so much about Fred Rogers--it's about the conflicted journalist he meets--but there's something reassuring about a movie that puts kindness front and center.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: Find the review here.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Anne and Matt Go to the Video Store: The Power Rankings

For a visual aid, here's a look at the power rankings in this week's episode of the podcast:

  1. Searching
  2. Best of Enemies
  3. Green Book
  4. On the Basis of Sex
  5. The Girl in the Spider’s Web
  1. Searching
  2. On the Basis of Sex
  3. Green Book
Unranked: The Best of Enemies (didn’t watch it)


      4. The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Heeeeeere's Howard!

We talked about Howard on our podcast and promised some photos! You'll find a few of the little guy below.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Six Stones to Peggy: A Marvel Cinematic Universe Story

You can listen to an audio version of this story on iTunes or ShoutEngine

Bucky was right, Steve Rogers mused, he was taking all the stupid with him.

But Bucky would understand. He always did.

Always would.

And Sam…

Well, maybe not so much.

But, in time, maybe.


He was sick of thinking about time. Talking about it. Scott Lang’s idea for the “Time Heist”—it still sounded so stupid—shouldn’t have worked, but Bruce and Tony figured it out. They brought everyone back. They beat Thanos.

They used time to do it.

Thanos had taken so much from the world, and from them. First, half the universe. After that, Nat. Tony.

He allowed a slight smile as he thought about Nat. 

Black Widow was the best of them, even though she never thought of herself that way. Most people looked at Steve Rogers and saw the perfect soldier with perfect manners and perfect teeth. She saw the flaws and challenged him to be an even better version of himself. 

The world owed as much to Nat as it owed anyone else. 

Thor had a hammer, Tony had a suit of armor, and Hulk had the strength to casually toss a house halfway around the world.

But Nat and Clint didn’t have any of those advantages. They survived through wits and courage, always dependent on a special bond forged in the battlefield. As much as Steve didn’t understand monsters and magic, he understood that type of bond. He shared it with Bucky and the Howling Commandos, and with Nat and Sam after the Sokovia Accords, when they traveled the world to stomp out the stubborn remnants of Hydra.

But Nat was gone now. A soul for a soul, as Clint explained it. She gave her soul to Vormir, and Vormir gave up the Soul Stone in return. He couldn’t imagine Clint’s pain; Hawkeye would’ve gladly given himself up so the world could go on with Natasha Romanoff at the helm.

She wasn’t the only fallen Avenger.

Steve remembered standing face-to-face with Tony—he thought of him only as “Stark” back then—on Fury’s Helicarrier, telling him he was just a “man in a suit.” He knew guys with none of Stark’s wealth or genius worth ten of him. He told him that, straight and true, like he always did. 

Steve thought himself a good judge of character, but his judgment lacked something back then. He hadn’t been out of the ice that long. They never really saw eye to eye on things, but fate brought them together and they managed to smooth things out, at least until Zemo broke them.

Bucky was always his weak point. What if they’d worked things out before Thanos? Would the Avengers have stood together to defeat him the first time?

In the end, Tony made the sacrifice play. He brought back the kid and everyone else, but he left his daughter and Pepper behind. Rhodey and Happy. The Avengers. Everyone else.

He was Iron Man.

Steve underestimated Tony because Tony overestimated himself. He was a “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” who wore his feelings and vanity on his sleeve. Steve didn’t think to dig deeper, and he should have. 

The wizard guy—Strange—told him later that there was only one way to beat Thanos and bring everyone back. That one way, Steve realized, required Tony’s genius and his sacrifice. Strange knew it because he saw it—one of the many things Steve didn’t fully comprehend about the superpowered world he lived in—and Strange couldn’t say a damn thing to Tony because it could’ve meant defeat.

If Tony knew he had to die, maybe he would’ve hesitated to snap Thanos and his army away. That hesitation could’ve allowed Thanos to make his latest insane idea of “balancing” the universe a reality. If Tony knew he had to die, he wouldn’t have wanted to abandon the kid or leave Morgan.

In the end, Tony Stark had a heart.

And a family.

That was something Steve hadn’t had in a long, long time.

He had a chance to change that, to live the kind of life Tony talked about it.

A simple life.

Only a few tasks remained.







Six Stones to Peggy.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

A guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for my poor brother

This post is for my brother, who has only a passing interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a son who really wants to see Avengers: Endgame.

He's only seen a handful of MCU movies, including the first Captain America, The Avengers, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Black Panther. 

Those of us who've seen all the MCU movies know how much impact Endgame can have. I can only imagine confusion from anyone who hasn't seen all the movies. This handy guide is intended to help my brother get the most out of his viewing of Endgame. It's a noble goal that's probably futile, but hey, I like to write stuff.

MCU vital statistics:

  • The MCU spans 22 movies so far, if you count Endgame (the 23rd movie will be Spider-Man: Far from Home in July)
  • There are three phases of the cinematic universe
  • Phase I includes Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers
  • Phase II includes Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man
  • Phase III includes Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2., Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnorak, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War; Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far from Home
  • There are six Infinity Stones: Mind, Soul, Power, Space, Time, and Reality
Simplified plot summaries

Iron Man: Arms manufacturer and billionaire Tony Stark is wounded during a kidnapping attempt in the Middle East. He escapes by making a suit of armor and becomes obsessed with upgrading that armor to become a superhero. His best friend is James "Rhodey" Rhodes. He harbors a great deal of affection for his assistant, the put-upon Pepper Potts.

In this movie, he perfects the Iron Man armor and reveals to the world that he's a superhero, dramatically declaring, "I am Iron Man."

At the end of the credits, a man named Nick Fury approaches him about "The Avenger Initiative."

The Incredible Hulk: Dr. Bruce Banner can't contain the anger inside, which manifests itself as a green creature full of rage known as the Incredible Hulk. You know the story.

This mostly forgettable entry is notable for introducing us to General Thunderbolt Ross, who later becomes the Secretary of State in the MCU. 

Iron Man 2: The sequel is notable for introducing Natasha Romanoff, the spy/assassin better known as "Black Widow." Tony continues to upgrade his Iron Man armor and runs afoul of a villain named Whiplash and another weapons manufacturer named Justin Hammer. Ultimately, Iron Man wins the day and his friend, Rhodey, gets a suit of armor of his own and becomes "War Machine."

Pepper and Tony further enrich their relationship.

Thor: Thor is a prince of Asgard, a technologically advanced society based in Norse mythology. His hammer, Mjolnir, can only be wielded by someone who is worthy. He has a brother, the clever but unbalanced Loki, who is adopted and resents Thor's status as heir to Asgard. Their father is Odin.

After ticking off his father, Thor is banished to Earth without his powers and unable to wield his hammer. He falls in love with a woman named Jane Foster, becomes worthy of Mjolnir once more, and returns to Asgard to face Loki. Loki, who has plotted to gain the throne and prove himself worthy of being a king, loses their battle and drifts off into space.

Captain America: The First Avenger: Scrawny guy Steve Rogers keeps trying to enlist in the Army to fight in World War II even though he's physically weak. His best friend, Bucky Barnes, heads off for war. A doctor sees something in Steve and offers him a chance to become a candidate in the Super Soldier Program.

Steve takes the Super Soldier Serum, which turns him into a "peak human" with exceptional size, strength, and speed. He remains a "good man" at heart and never gives up. After the doctor dies, Steve tours the country as "Captain America" to raise money for the war effort.

He eventually makes it to Europe, rescues a bunch of soldiers (including Bucky), and fights a bad guy named Red Skull, the leader of a Nazi offshoot called HYDRA. His reunion with Bucky is short-lived however, and Bucky dies during an attack on a HYDRA convoy (he's not really dead, though).

Steve also falls in love with a British agent named Peggy Carter, but their story is cut short when Steve sacrifices himself by crashing a plane filled with explosives in the Arctic. 

He remains frozen for 70 years before he's revived and brought to the present day.

Also, there's a very important object known as the Tesseract, which is the Space Stone.

The Avengers: Thor's brother Loki comes to Earth with a scepter powered by the Mind Stone in order to steal the Tesseract. He's working for a being called Thanos to take over the Earth. Only the Avengers stand in his way.

The team includes Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk. Also along for the ride are Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow, the spy introduced in the second Iron Man) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye, an expert archer). 

Captain America and Iron Man, in particular, have trouble connecting. Although I didn't mention it in the Captain America summary, Cap worked with Tony's father, Howard, who had a lot of respect for Cap. Tony has a strained relationship with his father, who died in a car crash in the 1990s.

The team doesn't work well together at first but eventually gets it together and defeats Loki. 

The Mind Stone is turned over to SHIELD while Thor takes Loki back to Asgard with the Tesseract/Space Stone.

Iron Man 3: Tony Stark defeats a villain called the Mandarin in a movie that's more of an action comedy than a superhero entry. Nothing major really happens that affects the overall MCU.

Thor: The Dark World: A Dark Elf lusts after the Aether, which is the Reality Stone. The Aether attaches itself to Thor's girlfriend, Jane Foster, who must be taken to Asgard in order to be cured.

Thor's mother, Frigga, is killed in the movie (important for Endgame). She's played by Rene Russo...Tom Berenger's girlfriend in Major League. 

After some interdimensional shenanigans, the Aether is removed from Jane Foster and taken to a safe place. Loki fakes his own death and assumes the identity of Odin.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Cap learns that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA for decades. He manages to stop HYDRA's plan to kill millions of people perceived as "threats" to HYDRA's new world order.

Cap also meets the Winter Soldier, HYDRA's top assassin, who turns out to be the not-so-dead Bucky Barnes. Bucky has been brainwashed for years and doesn't know who he is. They fight at the end but Bucky ultimately prevents Cap from drowning and then disappears into obscurity.

Guardians of the Galaxy: An idiot from Earth named Star-Lord teams up with a talking raccoon, a talking tree, a green alien woman, and a warrior who takes everything too literally. It's better than it sounds.

This movie is notable for introducing the Power Stone. Thanos makes an appearance here as well. He's the "father" of the green alien woman (Gamora) and her sister (Nebula). These relationships are very important for Infinity War and Endgame.

Avengers: Age of Ultron: This movie is notable for introducing Vision, an android powered by the Mind Stone, as well as Wanda Maximoff (the Scarlet Witch) and her brother Pietro (don't get too attached).

Strains appear in the relationship between Cap and Iron Man. Black Widow and Hulk have an ill-fated romance (important for Endgame). Iron Man creates an advanced AI named Ultron that tries to destroy the world and kills several people in a country called Sokovia.

And, very important to Endgame, we learn that Hawkeye (the archer) is a family man. Only Black Widow is aware of this.

The Incredible Hulk blasts off into space at the end.

Ant-Man: Thief Scott Lang finds a suit that allows him to shrink down to the size of an ant. He works with Hank Pym and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne, to stop a generic CEO-ish supervillain from misusing a similar shrinking suit. HYDRA goons are also involved.

Notably, Scott is a convicted thief who has a daughter named Cassie. She means everything in the world to him.

This movie is one you should probably see because it's a light-hearted comedy. It also introduces the concept of the Quantum Realm, a plane of existence where the rules of time and space work differently than they do in our world.

Captain America: Civil War: After the disaster in Age of Ultron, world governments want to hold the Avengers accountable with the Sokovia Accords. Iron Man wants everyone to sign up, but Cap refuses, creating a rift that splits the Avengers into factions.

Vision and Scarlet Witch have a romance. Bucky is framed for a bombing that kills the leader of Wakanda, whose son is the Black Panther. Hawkeye comes "out of retirement" to fight for Cap's side. Falcon recruits Ant-Man for Cap's side. Iron Man recruits a kid named Peter Parker (you know Spider-Man!) to help him.
  • Team Cap: Cap, Bucky, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and Ant-Man
  • Team Iron Man: Iron Man, War Machine, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Black Widow, and Vision
In the end, Iron Man learns Bucky was framed for the bombing. However, he discovers that Bucky is responsible for killing his parents when HYDRA brainwashed him. Cap knew but didn't tell Iron Man, creating a rift that won't heal for years and leaves the Avengers splintered when Thanos puts his plans into action.

This movie does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of character work leading up to Infinity War.

Doctor Strange: A brilliant but arrogant surgeon severely injures his hands and seeks help through "alternative therapy" (um, it's magic). He learns to become a sorcerer and stops a plot from the "Dark Dimension" to take over Earth.

Dr. Strange possesses the Time Stone, which grants kind of unspecific abilities regarding time. This means we've now encountered the Mind, Space (Tesseract), Reality (Aether), Power, and Time Stones, leaving only the Soul Stone undiscovered so far.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: There are no more Infinity Stone shenanigans here, but we learn more about Star-Lord's background. All the Guardians are back, though Star-Lord and Gamora are in a relationship now (important for Infinity War and Endgame).

Also, Gamora and Nebula, the "daughters" of Thanos, start to repair their fractured relationship. There's a lot of entertaining stuff in this movie, but not much of it impacts the overall MCU.

Spider-Man: Homecoming: You've seen this one, so I won't go into too much detail. Just remember that Iron Man recruited Spider-Man, who is kind of a surrogate son to him. Spidey looks up to Iron Man and is eager to please.

Thor: Ragnorak: Thor and Loki learn they have a sister named Hela who's bent on taking over Asgard once their father, Odin, dies. Thor and Loki end up on a backwater world where Thor is forced to become a gladiator. He fights the Incredible Hulk, who ended up on the same planet after Age of Ultron.

They eventually escape and return to Asgard. However, Thor's home planet is destroyed and Hela is killed. Loki, because he's Loki, takes the Space Stone (Tesseract) from Asgard.

Thor takes the remaining Asgardians into space in order to find a new home. Unfortunately, they run into Thanos instead.

Black Panther: You've seen this one, so I'll keep it brief. Black Panther is an awesome hero with awesome allies. He's working to deprogram Cap's friend Bucky. This movie also gives us a compelling villain in Killmonger.

Avengers: Infinity War: You have to watch this one to understand anything about Endgame. Thanos collects all the Infinity Stones. He kills Loki and half of Thor's Asgardian survivors, acquiring the Space Stone (Tesseract) along the way. He already has the Power Stone.

He wants to collect all the Stones and embed them in his Infinity Gauntlet. He sees overpopulation and inadequate resources as an obstacle to the continuation of life in the universe and plans to snap half of all life out of existence. This dude is completely committed to the cause.

Thor joins up with Star-Lord and the Guardians of the Galaxy. They eventually split up; Thor goes to acquire a weapon that can kill Thanos while Star-Lord and his friends go to retrieve the Reality Stone (Aether). Star-Lord and his friends encounter Thanos, who already has the Reality Stone and kidnaps Gamora.

Thanos sacrifices Gamora to acquire the Soul Stone, the only Infinity Stone we haven't encountered yet. In order to earn that one, you must sacrifice something you love. This plays another major role in Endgame.

Dr. Strange refuses to give up the Time Stone and tells Iron Man he will do anything to keep it safe, even if it involves letting Iron Man or anyone else die. He eventually relents when Thanos is about to kill Iron Man, giving up the Time Stone in a surprising move that speaks to Iron Man's importance in the future.

Meantime, Cap, Black Panther, and their allies mount a furious defense in Wakanda, where they're trying to keep the Vision safe (he has the Mind Stone embedded in him). They face an onslaught from Thanos' army and hold them off for a bit.

Despite their efforts, Thanos kills Vision and gets the Mind Stone, giving him a complete set. Thor makes a timely appearance and almost kills Thanos. Still, the villain manages to snap his fingers, using his Infinity Gauntlet to harness the terrible powers of the collected Infinity Stones.

Half the universe dies as a result.
  • Snapped Heroes: Bucky, Falcon, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Scarlet Witch, Star-Lord, Groot (talking tree), Drax (literal warrior guy)
  • Unsnapped Heroes: Iron Man, Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Hulk, Thor, War Machine, Nebula (Thanos' other "daughter"), Rocket (talking raccoon)
  • Dead Heroes: Loki, Gamora, Vision (all died before the Snap)
Ant-Man and the Wasp: As a whole, this movie is simply another fun Ant-Man caper filled with humor. The end credits scene, however, introduces us to the concept of "time vortexes" within the Quantum Realm. Ant-Man becomes trapped in the Quantum Realm after Thanos' Snap.

Captain Marvel: Notable for introducing Captain Marvel, who plays a small but important role in Endgame. She's a super-powerful hero originally from Earth who has spent the last couple decades patrolling in space. She's a friend of Nick Fury and inspires his idea for "The Avenger Initiative."