Thursday, December 30, 2021

Studicus Selects 2021

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 2021 picks):

Studicus Selects 2020

2021 was supposed to be better. We had vaccines, we knew what it would take to keep the pandemic at bay. The spring and early summer showed such promise. But too many people were determined to upend simple inconveniences like vaccines and masks. We lost control, again. The delta surge came, followed by omicron. No matter how hard we tried, we could not escape the pandemic's iron grip.

People returned to their workplaces. Life went on. Sports went on. COVID-19 went on.

It wasn't all bad. We didn't have to cancel Thanksgiving this year. We didn't fret about Christmas. With my immediate family vaccinated, these events proceeded pretty much as normal, aside from the lingering thoughts of the year that came before, when Anne and I picked up Denny's for Thanksgiving (they were out of mashed potatoes!) and we wore masks in Williamsburg for a very pandemic Christmas.

Hey, maybe 2021 wasn't quite as bad as it originally seemed. Let's take a look back with the 2021 edition of Studicus Selects.

Selfie taken during my second Pfizer dose. Vandelay Industries! Say Vandelay Industries!

Best Clara's Pizza King Tour Stop, Vaccination Category. Once the COVID-19 vaccine became available for my age group, I signed up. Things were pretty busy in Marion County, so I got my shots in Richmond, Indiana. This was great for a couple reasons: I got to see my family and I got to order Clara's Pizza King. Three weeks between shots? Bring on the BBQ pepperoni pizza! What, Anne needs a shot, too? Can't do it the same weekend? I'd better drive her home so she can get her shot. Added bonus: family time. Added added bonus: more BBQ pepperoni pizza! Seriously, I got to eat my hometown favorite every Saturday for like a month. It was glorious. Oh, yeah, we also got the Pfizer vaccine. Kind of important, I guess.

This really concerned us!

Best COVID-19 Scare, Recalled At-Home Test Category. Anne didn't feel well in September. Whatever she had, I also got. She was sick for about a week--tired, body aches, no energy. I could barely get off the couch and walking our dog was a challenge. We got an at-home COVID test for Anne, which came back positive. We scheduled PCR tests the next available day; those came back negative. We didn't have COVID-19 (we definitely had something!). As it turns out, the Ellume test we'd bought was part of a recalled lot that returned a high number of false positives. I feel like 2021 was a false positive.

Best Trips Out of Town, Wedding Edition. Well, you know, life does go on. We went to a pair of weddings in 2021 after being homebound for much of 2020. One wedding took us to northern Indiana where my cousin Hannah got hitched; another took us to picturesque Iowa, where Anne's cousin Sam got married. The May wedding came not long after we'd gotten vaccinated, so it felt like the first really big thing we were able to do in this "year of renewal." The Iowa wedding was in October, when delta was taking hold. It was nice to do something normal for once and enjoy some time with family.

You served me well, old chap.

Best TV, Farewell, Old Friend Category. The first big purchase I ever made after graduating from college was my 55" Mitsubishi rear-projection HDTV. I got it from H.H. Gregg in Greenwood. This thing was huge and heavy. It sat in my apartment at Lake Piedmont, my apartment with Anne at Valle Vista Armes in Greenwood, and our current home on the southeast side of Indianapolis. For a long time, it served as Anne's TV. But technology evolves; the TV lacked an HDMI port because it was analog. This made it difficult to use with streaming boxes, and HDMI-to-component converters were kind of inconsistent. This year, I made the decision to say goodbye to the big TV, alternatively known as "The Big Musky" and "JumboTron C on the South Side." I got more than 17 years out of the big guy, but we had to put him down before he was old enough to vote.

I was so excited, I took a picture of the menu!

Most Premature "We're Back, Baby!" Return Tour. After more than a year of eating takeout and avoiding movie theaters, we made our triumphant return to post-pandemic life (hahahaha, yeah, right). It started with a long-awaited visit to Mexico City Grill and included stops at Texas Roadhouse and Famous Dave's BBQ. We also went back to the movies for the first time since (checks notes) The Call of the Wild on March 8, 2020. Our first two movies were F9 (June 27) and Black Widow (July 10). We definitely put our Stubs A-List subscription to good use!

I got the collector's edition, which had Jackie Robinson on the box.

Best PlayStation Baseball Game, Xbox Edition. Due to a licensing agreement, Xbox players never got a really good Major League Baseball game. That changed this year, when MLB: The Show came to Xbox. I played the game a lot (I should've been writing), guiding young first baseman Matty Adams from the minors to the big leagues. He developed into an MVP-caliber player and World Series champion. If his career ever continues, he may even become a Hall of Famer. Seriously--a great baseball game. Finally. It was weird to see the PlayStation logo on the boot screen, however!

Assembly and takedown are easy...especially when you don't break it.

Most Needed Front Porch Addition, Tent Category. We like to sit on the front porch in the spring, summer, and fall. Just one problem: our porch gets way too much sun during the day. It's uncomfortable and not very much fun. To help with that, we bought a collapsible tent that's pretty easy to put up and down based on conditions (if it's going to storm, we can easily take it down). When it arrived, I decided to surprise Anne and put it up so it would be there when she got home. Because I am an idiot, I broke the "easy to assemble" product. We sent it back and got a new one. I waited for help the second time. It's hibernating for the winter, but it will be back in a few months!

An unexciting box for an exciting phone.

Most Fascinating Early Upgrade, Flip Phone Category. We did early upgrades on our phones this year, and Anne went with the Samsung Z Flip3. We got it for a good price with a trade-in on her Galaxy S10+. It's really cool. I loved having a flip phone when I was younger--the way it would just slide into my pocket. To be able to do that and have a fully-featured smartphone is really impressive. And when it was my turn to upgrade, I got a Pixel 6. It's a great phone, even if it doesn't fold!

The Updates You Really Want to Hear, Pets Category. I know why you're really here. You want to know what kind of a year our pets had, right? And you want to know so you can look at pictures of our pets, right? Who am I to deny you such cuteness?

Let's start with Howard. It's been an interesting year for the pupper. After working from home for several months (which he loved), I went back to the office in June (which he didn't love as much). He had kind of a rough year that included getting an inhaler for some respiratory issues and having a mass removed from his right shoulder (it was benign, thankfully). He's also gotten way too many dog toys.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

Hidden Howard.

Waka, waka, waka!

Sometimes, he likes being carried!

An over-the-shoulder view...

Napping buddies.

It is REALLY hard to get a good shot of him in a bandana.

The aftermath of his surgery.

Howard had to wear shirts after surgery to prevent him from scratching.

This is Howard's breathing apparatus. You attach an inhaler to it.

The girls at Petco snapped this one!

Willy gave us the biggest surprise of the year. Our poor turtle kept trying to climb out of the tank, and we thought something was wrong with the water. We ended up taking Willy to the vet. Why was Willy trying so hard to get out?

Because Willy is a girl who had eggs she wanted to lay!

When we got Willy, we didn't know she was a girl. Our vet didn't either--she said it was hard to tell with that particular type of turtle. Willy hadn't been kept in bad conditions before we got her, but she didn't have a UVB light and basking spot like she has now. The vet believes she didn't lay eggs for years because she had some health challenges. Now that she has been in a more ideal turtle environment, Willy developed the ability to create eggs. We don't believe she ever laid the eggs--we took her out several times and she tried.

It sure shocked the heck out of us!

Heeeeeeere's Willy!

Basking turtle is basking.

On the hamper, because, of course.

She'll let us get in close sometimes.

Just swimmin' around...

Privacy, jerk, I'm basking!

Lenny is our low maintenance pet. His food isn't expensive. He doesn't try to get out of his tank. He doesn't need to be walked three times a day. And best of all, when we took him in for a checkup, the vet said he was a remarkably healthy leopard gecko and gave him a clean bill of health. Way to go, Lord Leonard!

Comin' at ya!

Lenny always like a warm hand!

"And now the majestic leopard gecko goes for a drink..."

"Seriously, dude, get the camera out of my face."

Here, Lenny is climbing my Return of the Jedi shirt

Lord Leonard, slightly unfocused

Most Needed Upgrades, Home Edition. We made a few changes around the house. Notably, the old pub table is gone, replaced by a modular dining room table. 

Dinner mode... storage mode (the most boring Transformer ever)

Our keyless entry panel stopped powering up after we changed the battery, so we got a new one. I'm not much of a handyman, but I did manage to take down the old one and install the new one.

And, flush with cash from a stimulus check, we also upgraded the toilets in our downstairs bathrooms. They are rimless, which is kind of weird.

Clean It Out, DVD Edition. Faced with a stack of DVDs and Blu-ray discs without a home, we decided to go through all our movies and get rid of them. After going through our collection, we loaded up four Amazon boxes of various sizes and took them to Half Price Books. We got about $50 out of the whole lot.

We had some good stuff in there (and some bad stuff!). Some were duplicates (two copies of Syriana?!) while others had been upgraded from DVD to Blu-ray or from Blu-ray to 4K Blu-ray. I kept the first DVD I ever bought, the two-disc edition of Gladiator, even though I have it on 4K. Some of the movies we parted with have digital copies, which is how we watch most of our movies anyway.

This was the first DVD I ever bought--and the whole reason I got a DVD player in the first place.

Writing Year in Review. I had a pretty productive writing year. After finishing several drafts of my book Also Starring Brock Calhoun as Himself, I wrote a sequel and started a third book. I submitted the novel to a couple places and got some bites (still waiting on responses). Then I saw 8-Bit Christmas on HBO Max, got inspiration for another book, and started writing Sega CD Summer. I'm 47,000 words into it. Once a first draft of that is done, it's back to the world of Brock Calhoun, followed by the completion of Inspector Willy, a book about a crime-solving turtle.

I took a few days off work to attend the 2021 Midwest Writers Workshop Agent Fest, which was a valuable (and virtual) experience. I've gone to an MWW event three times now: 2010, 2016, and 2021. 

Movie Year in Review: Anne and I returned to the movies this year and saw several things in theaters. Here are some capsule reviews. WARNING: You may encounter some SPOILERS!

Fast 9. They did it. They went into space (sort of). Anyway, these movies are ridiculous and getting too ridiculous, in my opinion. A decent time at the movie theater enhanced by the fact it was our first visit to the south side AMC since March 2020, just before the pandemic hit. Too bad The Rock and Vin Diesel can't get along; the movies are better with Dwayne Johnson!

Black Widow. I know there's the feeling that this movie came too late. It's probably justified. I, however, had a marvelous time with this one. Loved the interactions of Natasha and her "family." Dug the spy vibe. Really liked Yelena. The villain was weak, Taskmaster was cool but underwhelming, and the third-act set piece didn't feel epic despite its huge scale. I think the characters made it work, though. 

Snake Eyes. Really wanted to love this one and only kind of liked it. We didn't really see Snake Eyes because this was an origin story. I would prefer they followed the G.I. Joe comic continuity a lot closer. Honestly, you could've removed the G.I. Joe links and called this Generic Action Movie without losing much.

Jungle Cruise. It's a little bit Pirates of the Caribbean. A little bit The African Queen. A little bit Indiana Jones. I thought The Rock had good chemistry with Emily Blunt. I dug the throwback setting and pulpy feel of it all. Not sure I loved the "revelation" at the end. If they do make a sequel, I'd watch it.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. A really cool piece of the MCU. I loved the lead and his chemistry with Awkafina. Ben Kingsley absolutely killed it as Trevor Slattery, whose King Lear was the "toast of Croydon." Pretty interesting take on the Mandarin and the Ten Rings, and I wonder if Marvel will expand on that (of course they will!). While it had a small tie-in with Doctor Strange, I felt like this was mostly a standalone entry. And that's not a bad thing. Some great action, too.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage. If you need to turn your brain off for 90 minutes, this movie can help. Venom movies are an acquired taste as it is, and we simply went to this movie because we wanted to go to a movie that weekend and it was the only thing we were remotely interested in seeing. Despite some good actors trying their hardest, I kind of forget what it was about.

No Time to Die. It's over, Daniel Craig. No more Bond movies for you. The Daniel Craig era was an interesting one for Bond in that it built a somewhat cohesive story over the span of his five movies. I thought this was a fitting end for Craig's Bond, although the runtime felt a little indulgent. I'll forgive the movie's interesting but underused villain simply because it gave Bond more time to die.

Dune. A spectacular adaptation of a supremely weird book! A stellar cast, amazing special effects, and incredible worldbuilding. I still love the bagpipes of House Atreides. It's not perfect, though. It's really only half of a story (it ended at a sensible point, but it may leave some people wanting). 

Marvel’s Eternals. The first MCU movie I've truly been disappointed in. A stellar cast and heady ideas can't save a plodding story about some truly boring characters. What are the stakes here? Why do I care? Why should I care? 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife. This is Ghostbusters in Spielbergian style, a story, at its core, about kids and family. I loved the lead actor and Paul Rudd. I enjoyed many of the callbacks to the original. The third act went full-on Ghostbusters Redux. I'm a little on the fence about that, but it was an enjoyable movie with a lot of heart, and I think that helps make up for some of its lesser parts.

West Side Story. A sumptuous retelling of the classic musical from Steven Spielberg. It's a box-office flop, which is a shame. I saw some imaginative choreography and appreciated the attempt at a diverse cast. While sitting in the theater, I realized just how many of its songs are in our musical canon. It's very impressive.

Spider-Man: No Way Home. Man. I'm not sure what to say about this one. It is completely overwhelming, in a good way! We get to see a few different iterations of Spider-Man, which is pretty cool, along with several returning villains from Spidey's tangled history. Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina were incredible. The creative team made some bold decisions. An absolutely terrific Spider-Man movie. Go see it!

And here's what we streamed this year...

Only Murders in the Building. This Hulu original brought Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez together for an awesomely hilarious murder mystery that also included podcasting. Highly recommended.

American Crime Story: Impeachment. A very interesting limited series about the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton affair that led to the former president's impeachment. Good performances in this one, although it's still weird to think of King Arthur's Clive Owen as Bill Clinton.

Ted Lasso. Believe. That is all.

Free Guy. This is a really fun movie! Ryan Reynolds stars as a non-player character who lives in a Grand Theft Auto-like game and breaks free of its rules. Some sharp humor, fun action, and a little bit of heart.

Zack Snyder's Justice League. It's a miracle this thing exists. The director's original vision for the Justice League movie was severely compromised when he stepped away due to a family tragedy. Joss Whedon took over, tried to lighten the tone, and turned in a tonally messy movie. HBO Max debuted a new version of the movie from Snyder, who packed it to the brim with four hours superhero fun? Anyway, it's a much different version of the movie that follows many of the same beats but gives the characters more depth and more room to breathe. It's hard to describe, really. Did it need to be in IMAX format? No. Did we need a redesigned bad guy? Nope. Did it need a black and white version? Absolutely not. Did we need to see it? Absolutely.

Matrix Resurrections. The biggest "meh" on this list. Even more of a "meh" than Venom: Let There Be Carnage. I like The Matrix, I loved seeing Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss back in action, but it was just okay.

8-Bit Christmas. Take A Christmas Story and replace the BB gun with a Nintendo Entertainment System, and you end up with this movie. As a kid who grew up in the '80s, I really dug it.

The Staircase. Was it a bizarre accident or murder? This multi-part Netflix documentary attempts to answer that question. It's a fascinating piece.

Hawkeye. We got four MCU shows on Disney+ this year, and I liked each one of them. While a lot of people make fun of Hawkeye, I've always enjoyed the character. I thought this was a great show and a wonderful introduction to Kate Bishop. Kingpin is back! Trick arrows! PIZZA DOG!

WandaVision. If you can get past the weirdness of the first few episodes, this is a satisfying limited series. I mean that in a good way! It's an imaginative show with likeable leads and some very inspired production design that traces the history of TV sitcoms. You kind of have to see it to understand.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I loved The Adventures of Sam and Bucky. A few things were undercooked, like the main villain and the Power Broker, but the main characters' chemistry really made up for it. It's hard to think of anyone other than Steve Rogers as Captain America, but Sam Wilson can carry the shield.

Loki. Who doesn't love Tom Hiddleston's Loki? It was great to see the character--or at least a variant of him--mess around in the multiverse. Alligator Loki! Richard E. Grant! I wasn't quite an enamored with the finale as some people; while the Kang stuff was interesting, I felt like it was just a bit too idiosyncratic. It didn't sink the show, though.

Seinfeld on Netflix. After spending years of watching Seinfeld on Plex, we now watch it on Netflix because it's easy. It's definitely better than watching it on its former home on Hulu, which meant sitting through the same three commercials over and over.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Dune 2021 review

Dune is here.

The new movie is a beautifully realized adaptation of an intensely weird book. I'm a late comer to Dune, having read the original novel last year at the urging of a friend. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It's dense and strange and just throws you into the deep end of the pool. Dune does not hold your hand; it simply starts throwing terms like "Bene Gesserit," "Kwisatz Haderach," "sietch," and "stillsuit" at you and expects you to catch up.

I really liked it. I haven't read any of the sequels, but I probably will. I may even re-read the original.

The new movie, out in theaters and HBO Max (to the director's chagrin) at the time of this writing, boasts a stellar cast, excellent cinematography, and stunning visuals. It attempts to streamline the plot, as movie adaptations often do, and the film suffers a bit in character work as a result. That said, it's amazing how much of Dune (the title card says Dune: Part One and Dune: Part Two got the green light on the day of this writing) the movie managed to pack into its 2 hours and 35 minutes. 

Some characters and subplots are omitted or disappear entirely. Gone is some of the political intrigue. Important characters like Gurney Halleck and Thufir Hawat aren't necessarily major players here. We don't learn about mentats or delve too much into the Imperium and its emperor. Dr. Yueh, another critical character, also loses out a bit. A little more development with him would ground his eventual actions.

But these are fairly standard sacrifices of adapting a novel to the big screen. Movies don't let you get into the heads of characters; they must tell their stories in broad strokes and often without much nuance. Some things are inevitably lost in translation, and I believe Denis Villeneuve did an excellent job of distilling the book into its essential elements.

I was extremely relieved to learn we're getting a second movie (due October 2023), as the first one ends with so much unresolved. Some viewers will find it jarring when the credits roll. They'll lament the lack of screen time for Zendaya's Chani. Even the antagonists, the Harkonnens, don't get a whole lot of development.

Dune certainly isn't perfect, as I've made it clear. It is, however, a stunning achievement that manages to find a little heart among the heady concepts and themes. And Duncan Idaho fought like a demon.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Studicus Selects 2020

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 2020 picks):

Studicus Selects 2019

I don't have to tell you that 2020 was different. You know it. You lived it. The idea of "normal" went completely out the window in the early months. We had to work from home. Kids went to school from home. The simple act of going to the store became considerably less simple. Carryout and delivery meals replaced going to a restaurant.

When I headed out the door, my usual mental check--keys, wallet, phone--suddenly became keys, wallet, phone and mask.

The coronavirus pandemic has held us in its grip since the very beginning and changed the fundamental nature of socializing across the globe. You can't escape it. Not in Indianapolis. Not in Williamsburg. 

Still, the first couple months were somewhat normal. I eventually adjusted to the "new normal," which is kind of like the old normal but a lot more boring and isolated. 

In an abnormal year, it's nice to have some sense of normality. 

It's in that spirit that I present this year's "Studicus Selects."

Best Unexpected Self-home Delivery, Couch Category. We loved our old sectional, which came from Anne's house after her parents replaced their downstairs sectional and gave us their old one. However, after several years, it was starting to wear out.

The fabric on the armrests had ripped, the stuffing was showing from multiple cushions, and there was a noticeable sag in the middle of one end. We looked around for a new one--in actual stores because COVID-19 hadn't made it to Indiana yet--and found one at Bob's Furniture on the south side.

We ordered the couch and had it delivered on Saturday, February 22.

What an experience that was!

I suggested that the moving crew bring it in through the garage because there's more room to maneuver there than the front door. They kept trying to angle the thing through the doorway--and it wasn't working.

After like two attempts, one of the guys told us the couch wouldn't fit and we'd have to have it returned to the store and order a new one that fit.

We had, obviously, already moved the old couch out and had nothing in our living room. I made a suggestion: take the door from the garage off its hinges and bring the couch straight through the doorway. I measured; it would fit.

The guy was skeptical of this and basically said it wasn't worth trying. I told him we should give it a shot; his coworker agreed with me and said we should try it before giving up. 

I picked up one end of the couch and the coworker picked up the other. We got it through with a little finesse. 

That's right. I moved my own couch into the house. 

The crew had endured a tough delivery before coming to our house, so they arrived in a not-so-great mood. However, I think you should probably try just about everything before telling a customer they'll have to send their couch back and order another one.


We keep a cover on the couch now, but this is what it looks like in its natural state.

Best Public Event, Pre-pandemic Category. Anne and I went to Disney on Ice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on January 22. 

Do I remember much of the show?

Not really.

However, I do remember watching something in a crowd and going out in public without having to wear a mask, so I'll call that a win.

We've seen Disney on Ice several times over the past few years, but they all kind of blend together. Was there a magic carpet ride? Did they sing "Be Our Guest?" Was there a Moana segment?

Honestly, I can't remember.

Not a single person in this picture is wearing a mask!

Best New Addition, Family Category. We added a niece this year, the adorable Josie.

We haven't gotten to see her in person yet (thanks, pandemic), but we've gotten to see plenty of pictures and videos. Video calls have also helped a lot!

She's the daughter of my brother-in-law Matt and sister-in-law Leah. Such a precious little thing! We can't wait to meet her and watch her grow over the years. 

Distance is tough--the pandemic makes it worse--but we'll meet her before she learns to drive. Anne calls her "Little Squish," and I think it's just adorable.

Just a really great family!

We're as enchanted by her as she is by the Christmas tree!
Strangest documentary that tried to heal a fractured nation, Netflix category. Hey, remember Tiger King?

The Netflix documentary premiered as the pandemic was just starting in the U.S. It became, for about a month or so, a national obsession as people learned about Joe Exotic, Joe Exotic's insane music videos, Joe Exotic's many tattoos, Joe Exotic's husbands, Joe Exotic's financial troubles, Joe Exotic's presidential run, and Joe Exotic's passionate hatred of one Carole Baskin.

I still can't believe this was a thing that happened. 

What are your thoughts on Carole Baskin? Righteous animal rights crusader? Conspiratorial gold digger? 


Most Surreal Sight, Personal Shopping Experience. In the early days of the pandemic, you couldn't buy anything. Need paper towels? Toilet paper? Disinfecting wipes? Frozen pizzas? Meat?

It was incredible. I almost made a list of eight stores in my area so I could drive to each one and see what they had in stock. A lot of communities did similar things in Facebook groups or neighborhood apps. 

Finding toilet paper in those days was like finding a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X right now. I feared, at one point, we would have to barter toilet paper for food or other supplies. That didn't come to pass.

But, man, going to Target was weird. I snapped a couple pictures from the Southport Target on March 22 after finding the aisles cleaned out.

The paper goods aisle--cleaned out

Not much going on here in the frozen goods section because everyone dined on frozen pizza!

If you found wipes or toilet paper in those days, you really did feel like you'd won the lottery. But if you came across a bounty of such items, it didn't matter--stores limited you to one item per transaction.

How it feels to find the last container of Clorox wipes at the store...

Unexpected Money, El Presidente Stimulus Category. When the pandemic runs its course (and with these vaccines on the way, I believe it will), we should all get t-shirts saying, "I survived the pandemic and all I got was this lousy $1,200 check."

Snark aside, these did help a lot of people. It would've been nice for those same people to get a second check much earlier, but hey, another $600 is on the way.

I enjoyed the letter we received from the president, which explained the reason for the payment accompanied with the same letter translated en espaƱol from "Presidente" Trump. 

We used some of the money to upgrade our cell phones and pay off the rest of my student loan.

Signature or cardiogram? You decide

Our Year at the Movies, Truncated Theatrical Engagements Category. Typically, the Studicus Selects columns have a ton of movie recaps because Anne and I go to the theater a lot. 

However, we haven't been to the movies since March. A look back at our ticket history on the AMC Theatres app shows seven visits to the theater from January 1, 2020, through March 8, 2020.

Here's what we saw:

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. I really liked it. I saw it on January 1 and January 19 after catching multiple showings in 2019. My review.

Knives Out. An entertaining murder mystery from "the guy who ruined Star Wars." Really enjoyed this one! Still, Anne and I refer to the director as "Master of Subversion Rian Johnson." We saw this on January 11.

Frozen 2. Snow. Singing. Olaf. You know what you're getting from a Frozen movie. We saw this on January 14.

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (I'm not using the ridiculous full title). A pretty fun romp in the DC Universe. High-quality action. Good use of Ewan McGregor. Anne sat this one was a Matt and Krildog joint venture on February 8.

1917. An incredibly conceived and shot war movie. Really feel like Sam Mendes deserved the Best Director Oscar for this one. We saw this on February 9.

Call of the Wild. Harrison Ford is a grumpy old man with a CG dog. I read the book after seeing the movie. I found the ending incredibly touching. It underperformed at the box office, but you can find it on HBO Max. We saw this on March 8 with Anne's dad....and we haven't been back to AMC since.

Our Year in Streaming, Streaming-Palooza Category. Anne and I saw our parents and friends only a few times this year. We sat out Thanksgiving and bought meals from Denny's. 

As a result, we watched the vast majority of our entertainment at home in 2020. 

Here are a few highlights:

Unsolved Mysteries. The show got a Netflix reboot (good first half, so-so second half) that's more in the true crime podcast vein than the original show. The reboot got us interested in the original show, and we streamed several seasons of Robert Stack's Unsolved Mysteries before taking a little break.

The Boys. Hyper-violent, crude, and uncomfortably hilarious and poignant, this is a solid effort on Amazon Prime. Due to the nature of the show, I can't really recommend it for the squeamish or anyone who loves the superhero genre so much that they can't make fun of it. Definitely TV MA here.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark. This is a good series from HBO on the search for the infamous Golden State Killer. It's well done, for the most part, but sometimes the show felt like it was focused more on Michelle McNamara as opposed to the quest to find the killer. Still a good watch.

McMillions. We really enjoyed this HBO doc on a scheme to disrupt and profit from the famous McDonald's Monopoly promotion. It's engaging and will keep you guessing about how a security guard managed to rig the game to benefit friends and family.

His Dark Materials. I liked the first season, but I've felt like season 2 has been more engaging for me. It's probably because I understand the world better after the first season. As of this writing, we haven't watched the finale yet.

The Last Dance. This ESPN miniseries chronicles the rise of the Chicago Bulls and their two three-peats. It's absolutely spectacular. Even Anne, who likes sports but isn't exactly a huge sports fan, found it thoroughly captivating.

Peyton's Places. I've always loved Peyton Manning. However, we don't have ESPN Plus, so we couldn't watch his show. When the pandemic hit and sports were canceled for a bit, ESPN aired the show and we set a series recording. Like football? Like Peyton? It's great stuff.

Schitt's Creek. The show launched a million memes and gifs, but it's genuinely funny and, at times, touching. Early on, the main characters have dinner with some old friends who tear down the town--and Johnny Rose takes offense. It's a great moment. 

Picard. Patrick Stewart is back as Jean-Luc Picard. A few TNG favorites return. The plot involves Data and AI. It's pretty twisty. I'll never complain about seeing more of one of my favorite characters.

Onward. While this came out before the pandemic, Disney sent it to VOD early after it was clear movie theaters would have to close down. A very enjoyable story about a pair of brothers in a fantasy-inspired world.

Trolls: World Tour. Another Trolls movie. It went straight to VOD because of the pandemic. I remember nothing about it other than having to pay money to watch it.

Jumanji: The Next Level. I really enjoyed the first one; we didn't see the second one in theaters and finally snagged the digital version when it was on sale. Thoroughly entertaining, if predictable. Seeing The Rock portray Danny DeVito is pretty good stuff.

Bill & Ted Face the Music. Another movie pushed directly to digital because of the pandemic, this is a fun and heartfelt third movie in the Bill & Ted series. The guys are older but no less entertaining. Wyld Stallyns rule!

Mulan. We paid the "Disney tax" to watch this early on Disney+. Somehow, it's simultaneously the same yet completely different from the original movie. The stuntwork is pretty good and I like the cast. Miss the songs, though. Glad Ming-Na Wen had a cameo.

The Trial of the Chicago 7. An excellent look into a fascinating case. Great acting and casting in this one. Will probably track down a book about the case because it was so interesting.

Howard. A look at the life of Howard Ashman, the man responsible for writing the lyrics to some of Disney's greatest movie songs. He was passionate and driven, even to the end while dying from AIDS at age 40.

Totally Under Control. Did the U.S. mismanage the pandemic? Um, yeah. This documentary premiered on VOD before being made available on Hulu. It'll tick you off.

Athlete A. It's amazing the lengths USA Gymnastics went to in order to protect people who should've been exposed long ago. You can't help but feel for the brave athletes who stepped forward and finally got someone to listen.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. This was a thoroughly ridiculous movie. Somehow, Will Farrell and Rachel McAdams made it work. The elves went too far, indeed. Play "Jaja Ding Dong!"

The Old Guard. An unexpectedly solid action movie from Netflix starring Charlize Theron that follows the adventures of a group of long-lived soldiers who've influenced world events for hundreds of years. Some really good action scenes in this one.

Enola Holmes. A diverting mystery featuring the teen sister of Sherlock Holmes. Good casting with Millie Bobby Brown and Henry Cavill. Really dug the music.

Soul. Another winner from Disney-Pixar. Sort of a mashup of Heaven Can Wait and Inside Out. Great animation and a heartfelt story with good performances all around.

Wonder Woman 1984. I love Chris Pine. I love Gal Gadot. I didn't love the movie. Felt like Pedro Pascal needed to be dialed down from 11 to about 8.5. Couldn't care less about Barbara Minerva. Not nearly as good as the first, unfortunately, making it a letdown for me. 

Most Out of It Dog, Howard Surgery Category. Poor Howard had to have several teeth pulled earlier this year. It's part of being half-chihuahua--they tend to have problems with their teeth. He was at the vet's office almost all day.

While they were finishing up his surgery, a car crashed into a pole and the power went out at the facility. The vet had to wrap things up early and leave one tooth unpulled because they couldn't see well enough to do it in the dark.

When we finally picked Howie up after 10 p.m. that day, the poor guy was out of it! It took a few days of medicine and recovery before he was acting like his usual self.

Please give me all the cuddles, Mommy!

What day is it? Who are these people? How do I tell them I have no inner monologue?
Best Dressed Dog, Howard Category. Howard's wardrobe has expanded over the last year. Here are some of his best looks...

It's very hard to get a good picture of him in a bandana, so this will have to do

The classic blue "Adidog" sweatsuit keeps his tummy warm

It's just Howard in a harness, you know, behind the wheel at the Dairy Queen drive-thru

This is the green Adidog sweatsuit, the second of three

I call this the "Hamburglar" outfit

"Lumberjack chic"

The "Bert and Ernie" look

The third Adidog sweatsuit is yellow

Howard's Santa outfit, which he wore precisely long enough for me to snap a few pictures
Best Willy photos, Willy Category. Our turtle, Willy, needed a procedure this year as well. His upper dental plate was growing out of control, so we had to take him to a specialist to have it ground down. 

For a time, we noticed Willy's mouth was almost always open. Now we know why: the dental plate had grown to the point that he couldn't close his mouth! The vet worried that, if it continued to grow unchecked, he wouldn't be able to chew his food.

Some Willy photos:

"I am ready for my closeup"

Willy on a walkabout outside; we let him romp when we can

Basking turtle!

You can see his mouth is a bit open here

More basking turtle!

We call this "full tuck"--and it's hard to snap a picture of him because he usually wakes up before you can get one

Willy loves being held!

Sometimes it looks like he just doesn't want anyone to bother him!

Out of the tank on a walkabout in the house
One of the great all-time Willy photos!
Best Looks of the Year, Lenny Category. Lenny, our little leopard gecko, is the recluse of the group. Howard's always around the house. Willy's tank is in the living room and he gets visited often. Lenny, on the other hand, is active at night and sleeps during the day.

It's harder to get pictures of him, but we've managed...

Lenny on his moist hide

"Does this look heroic enough, Dad?"

"This isn't really my good side, but I'll let you take the picture"

Lenny likes to squeeze himself in the strangest places sometimes

"Listen, can I get a drink of water without having my picture taken?"

He looks like he's surveying enemy forces in this one...

Lenny gets out a couple times a week and likes to find a warm, safe spot

He looks pretty content in this one!
Late Christmas Gift, Kind of, Home Arcade Category. I grew up in the '80s and '90s. Arcades were a big thing back in those days, and I've always wanted my own arcade machine. The Arcade 1Up machines are really cool, but I don't like the fact that they're limited in the number of games they play.

I had my sights set on the Legends Ultimate from AtGames. To be clear, AtGames hasn't had the best reputation when it comes to video game emulation. Some of their products, especially their earlier Sega Genesis clone systems, were less than fantastic.

However, they've made a concentrated effort to improve their products, and the Legends Ultimate is a great machine. Last Christmas, I requested gift cards from Walmart because Walmart and Sam's Club are two of the few retailers who sell the product.

For a time, they were hard to get! I kept stock alerts and they kept selling out before I could get one. The pandemic, obviously, didn't help with production. In September, the machine was in and out of stock and I finally got one at Sam's Club, using some of the gift cards from Christmas to buy one.

There was one little hitch: I mistyped the address, which I didn't notice until I received the shipping email. When I tried to get that changed, Sam's Club told me to contact UPS to change it; UPS said they couldn't change the address without authorization from Sam's Club; Sam's Club said they couldn't change the shipping address without authorization from me via UPS...anyway, I ended up having to cancel the order but managed to secure another. It' in the man cave, to say the least.

Maybe one day I'll actually be able to have people over to play it! Some of my top games: Captain America and the Avengers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, NBA Jam, BurgerTime, Frogger, and WWF Wrestlefest.

The machine comes pre-loaded with about 300 games. The best thing, however, is that you can add your own games. You just, um, have to know where to look, you know?

A look at the control deck, with has two joysticks with six-button layouts, a pair of spinners, and a trackball that's great for bowling games

It's got a light-up marquee, which is a nice touch
Best Practical Purchase, Dryer Category. We've had our dryer since we got married. Our washer and dryer were wedding gifts from Anne's parents. We got married in 2006, so we got more than a decade out of each. We bought a new washer in 2019 and the dryer finally called it quits this year.

I ordered a new one from Best Buy--the Whirlpool model that pairs with the washing machine we purchased last year.

Because things just can't go right--think of the couch delivery or the Sam's Club address story shared earlier--the delivery guys arrived, hauled off the old dryer, and then noticed that the new one was broken. The front panel of the new machine was coming off and the seals were broken.

We had to refuse delivery; when we called Best Buy support, we were advised that we wouldn't be able to get a new dryer until late December 2020 or late January 2021 (we ordered the dryer in October, so you can see the problem here).

I dropped by the local Best Buy and asked them about that; the manager there told me that was "stupid" and the model was in stock. She couldn't figure out why they said we couldn't get one until December. I ordered a second one, and it arrived at home a few days later. This one was completely intact and we love it.

Sometimes big purchases are an arcade machine...and sometimes they're just a dryer
Unexpected Early Christmas Gift, Xbox Series X Category. Typically speaking, I avoid buying new video game consoles when they launch. There are several reasons for this. First, if you give it a few months, the prices will come down. Second, availability isn't fantastic. Third, launch game lineups can be on the thin side. Fourth, it takes developers time before they learn to get the most out of a machine. Fifth, sometimes the new systems don't come with pack-in games.

For example, the Xbox One came out in 2013 and cost $500. You got the system, Kinect, and the controller. That was it.

I bought my Xbox One in 2015. It was $340 and came with two Tomb Raider games, Assassin's Creed Unity, and a $60 digital code for the Xbox store.

So when the Xbox Series X | S and PlayStation 5 came out, I figured I'd wait to buy one. There would be better deals, the launch lineups were flimsy, and they were impossible to buy. 

People were having such problems getting the new consoles that I wondered if I could get one. I paid attention to different drop dates and times and tried to get one when Best Buy announced they'd have some in stock. I logged on, confident I had zero chance of getting an Xbox Series X because of demand and scalpers, and tried to get one.

Suddenly, I had one added to my cart. Then I received an email from Best Buy with a confirmation number to verify the purchase. After I added that, the website asked me to select a store for pickup. I selected the Greenwood store. 

I finalized my order.

I received an email confirming my order. I didn't believe any of this was real. I figured the order would be canceled--that happened to people frequently because demand for the systems has been high--but it was real. I picked it up from Best Buy in November.

Listen, I'm not complaining. I'm happy to have the Xbox Series X! It's just that I didn't really think I'd be able to buy one, given all the problems people have had. It's a great system; the games load super-fast and I'm playing so much Assassin's Creed Odyssey right now.

Microsoft did a nice job with packaging

Best Buy was an absolute madhouse on pickup day, but we got it!

I used a gift card to buy this 2018 game and I absolutely love it!
Writing Year in Review. To be honest, writing kind of went by the wayside this year. I worked from home a lot and it was a very stressful year that made it difficult to get into the routine of writing. I wrote a book this year, which is great, but I usually write a couple novels a year and try to write every day. That didn't happen in 2020.

As I mentioned, I did write a novel, Also Starring Brock Calhoun As Himself. The original draft came in at about 113,000 words and I edited it down to 94,000.

It's about a burned-out actor who has to team up with the characters he played in the movies to save the universe.

Here's the summary:

No one thought Brock Calhoun’s three-decade run at the box office would ever end.

Until it did. 

The roles dried up. Sure-fire hits flopped. His wife left him for an underwear model. 

Now in forced retirement, he hits the convention circuit in a desperate attempt to relive his glory days. He counts his little dog Angie as his only true friend.

When costumed intruders break into his home, Brock mistakes them for overenthusiastic cosplayers from one of his blockbusters. In truth, they’re trained killers sent by Dr. Thelonius Rickard, a movie-villain-made-flesh determined to make Brock pay for the cinematic sins of one of his iconic characters.

But action heroes from Brock’s extensive filmography arrive just in time. These fictional characters now exist in the real world, too—and they need help from the man whose face they share.

With loyal Angie in tow, Brock will traverse cinematic worlds made real—from the windswept plains of the Realm of the Blood Sword to the rainbow-colored Land of Candy and Sugar—in a race against Rickard, a beguiling rogue whose obsession with the actor will either grant him control over reality or prove his undoing.

With the fate of the universe and his Hollywood legacy at stake, Brock must become the ultimate leading man—no script, no stuntman, and no reshoots allowed.

I like the book. But then again, I wrote it.

I worked on some editing for other projects. The only other real writing I did was a short story called Gary, the Sith Eternal, which is about a guy stuck on the Sith planet from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Speaking of Star Wars...

Biggest Emotional Moment, The Mandalorian. I didn't include The Mandalorian in my streaming section for a good reason--I wanted to write a little more about it. The first season was fantastic, and the second season was great as well. 

For season 2, I really liked the premiere episode, "The Marshal." Other favorites were "The Jedi" and "The Tragedy."

But I really want to talk about "The Rescue," the season two finale.

I've come to terms with the sequel trilogy and The Last Jedi. Some love it, some hate it...there's little middle ground about that movie. The sequel trilogy robbed me of two things: the chance to see Han, Leia, and Luke together again and the chance to see Luke Skywalker, fully powered Jedi Master.

Luke's moment at the end of The Last Jedi was great; I'm not disputing that at all. But we have never gotten to see him do this:

"I'm Luke Skywalker. I'm here to rescue you."
Things were looking grim for Mando, Grogu, and the rest of the team. Dark Troopers (again, I can't believe I'm getting to write about this) were pounding on the doors and ready to kill everyone.

An X-Wing arrived.

The green lightsaber.

The hilt. The gloved hand.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It would make sense for Luke to show up and answer Grogu's call from earlier. 

I just didn't think it would happen.

But there he was.

The music was fantastic. The buildup was tremendous. We got to see Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight, absolutely wreck shop.

He stood patiently outside the door after cutting through those Dark Troopers, signaling that he was no threat to the people inside.

Mando opened the door. The hooded figured tucked away his lightsaber and then...

"They're not saying 'boo,' they're saying LUUUUUUUUUKE!"
I was 6 years old again. Or maybe 10 years old. Or maybe 18. Or 30--I'm a lifelong Star Wars fan.

Thank you, Jon Favreau, Dave Filoni, and all those who've made The Mandalorian so great.

"Talent without training is nothing."

"I will give my life to protect the Child."

Here's to a better 2021 for everyone.