2015 – The Year in Review – The Year in Film

2015 was a year of traveling everywhere and watching movies on a laptop or hotel TV, patched with an HDMI cable and bypassing the terrible in-room content delivery service.  I did see a *few* films in theaters. But by and large I wound up viewing most entertainment on a small screen, crammed into a seat on an airplane, or late at night in a hotel bed.

Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road
Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road
First up, let’s talk about the movies I saw in theaters… which were pitifully few. I did see Star Wars twice, though! What a great film. But, ultimately, it fell second to Mad Max: Fury Road, the most incredible cinematic feat, in my humble opinion, in the past decade or so.

What Fury Road and Force Awakens share in spirit is a return to practical special effects. They look spectacular. So much is being done in-camera. With Fury Road, almost every single insane stunt is happening for real.

They also both share a keen awareness for how to use action set pieces to drive narrative storytelling. And Mad Max‘s story is quite possibly the simplest one imaginable: a sustained chase sequence. Characters must travel from A to B. Here’s how we unfold that story: characters run, they get chased. Lather, rinse, and continue for roughly 2 hours.

Behold, my epic list of the top 5 films I saw in an actual theater!

Favorite Theatrical Viewings

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road
  2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  3. Inside Out
  4. Bridge of Spies
  5. Inherent Vice

Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair in Marty
Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair in Marty
Next up: my favorite films seen for the first time in 2015.

I watched, in all, 102 films (although one qualifies as a miniseries) in 2015. Out of all of these, I have chosen 20 that I really, really liked. And at the top of that heap, is Marty.

Paddy Chayefsky’s excellent 1953 teleplay Marty, originally written for The Philco Goodyear Television Playhouse, and starring Rod Steiger in the titular role, was expanded into a feature length film in 1955. Ernest Borgnine played the lonely butcher with a heart of gold, Marty Pilletti. Burt Lancaster produced. Delbert Mann directed.

I’ve long known that Marty was a classic film, winner of 4 Oscars: Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture at the 1956 Academy Awards. But I never watched the film until 2015, 60 years after its original theatrical debut.

Marty is a love story with all of the classic tropes, and none of the lazy storytelling that plagues 99.9% of all similar films today. It’s the kind of film that will push every button you have, and leave you with a smile in the end. Nothing else I watched on the small screen last year punched more holes in my emotional defenses and left me more filled with joy.

Favorite Films Seen For the First Time in 2015

  1. Marty
  2. Steamboat Bill, Jr.
  3. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
  4. The French Connection
  5. Whiplash
  6. Panique au Village (A Town Called Panic)
  7. The Guest
  8. What We Do in the Shadows
  9. Ex Machina
  10. C’era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West)
  11. The Running Man
  12. The Immigrant
  13. Philomena
  14. Ida
  15. The Wolf of Wall Street
  16. In Bruges
  17. The World’s End
  18. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  19. It Follows
  20. V/H/S

Behold: every movie I watched in 2015… alphabetized… 102 in all.

  1. A.I.
  2. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
  3. The Avengers: Age of Ultron*
  4. Barbarella
  5. Behind the Candelabra
  6. Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  7. Blades of Glory
  8. Blue Velvet
  9. The Book of Life
  10. Brave
  11. Boogie Nights
  12. Bridge of Spies*
  13. Burke & Hare
  14. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
  15. Cosmopolis
  16. Crimson Peak*
  17. The Devil’s Advocate
  18. Dirty Pretty Things
  19. The Double
  20. Double Indemnity
  21. The Empire Strikes Back
  22. Encounters at the End of the World
  23. Ex Machina
  24. The Fifth Element
  25. Fantasia 2000
  26. Fletch
  27. The French Connection
  28. Gambit (2012)
  29. Godzilla (2014)
  30. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
  31. Grabbers
  32. Gravity
  33. The Guest
  34. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  35. Hitch
  36. Home Alone
  37. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
  38. Housebound
  39. Howard the Duck
  40. Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle)
  41. Ida
  42. Idiocracy
  43. The Immigrant
  44. In Bruges
  45. Inherent Vice*
  46. Inside Out*
  47. Insidious: Chapter 3*
  48. It Follows
  49. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
  50. Johnny Dangerously
  51. The Last Unicorn
  52. La Legge (The Law)
  53. Lilo & Stitch
  54. Listen Up Philip
  55. Longford
  56. Mad Max: Fury Road*
  57. The Master
  58. Marty
  59. Men in Black
  60. Mystery Men
  61. Never Let Me Go
  62. A Night in Casablanca
  63. Night Train to Munich
  64. Noah
  65. Oleanna
  66. Olive Kittredge**
  67. C’era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West)
  68. Pacific Rim (x 3)
  69. Philomena
  70. Pitch Perfect
  71. Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo)
  72. Return of the Jedi
  73. Revenge of the Pink Panther
  74. The Ridiculous 6
  75. Robin Hood
  76. Rocky Horror Picture Show
  77. The Room
  78. The Running Man
  79. Rush Hour
  80. Scanners
  81. Shallow Hal
  82. Sleepless in Seattle
  83. Star Wars
  84. Star Wars: The Force Awakens* (x 2)
  85. Steamboat Bill, Jr.
  86. Stonehearst Asylum
  87. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie
  88. Kaguyahime no Monogatari (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya)
  89. Taxi Driver
  90. The Terminator
  91. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  92. Panique au Village (A Town Called Panic)
  93. Transformers: Age of Extinction
  94. V/H/S
  95. V/H/S 2
  96. Watership Down
  97. What We Do In The Shadows
  98. Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
  99. Whiplash
  100. The Wind Rises
  101. The Wolf of Wall Street
  102. The World’s End

* = denotes theatrical viewing
** = denotes a “mini series” or “television movie”

Pliny the Elder vs. Pure Hoppiness

Pliny & Pure Hoppiness
Pliny & Pure Hoppiness
These beers. Next to one another. Oh man.

So I happened upon a fresh bottle of Pure Hoppiness yesterday at the store and my wife happened upon a fresh bottle of Pliny today so… time for a side-by-side tasting, methinks!

I did the tasting solo, although my wife offered input by tasting a thimbleful of each beer. She correctly identified them from the glass, by the way, such a babe.

Pliny and Pure Hoppiness in the glass
Shortly after the initial pour – Pliny (on the left) is a little more bubbly than Pure Hoppiness (on the right)

Pliny the Elder is a little on the grassy, fresh cut flower side. Plenty of citrus and hop oil character with a light, crispy malt backdrop. Pliny finishes clean and brisk, with a tingling mouthfeel that smacks of orange chiffon.

Pure Hoppiness kicks things off with a little more heat, a bit boozier and more on the honey-sweet floral side than the grassy side. PH then segues rapidly into an herbal garden of hop sweetness and resinous tones. The mouthfeel is equally satisfying in the tingling sensation. Both of these beers are carbonated just right.

Bruce and Pliny
I offered Pliny to Bruce the cat and he was very intrigued
Bruce and Pure Hoppiness
I then offered Bruce Pure Hoppiness, but he recoiled. Apparently cats don’t dig hops as much as us humans do.

In the end, if I had to pick just one to drink for the rest of my life (a sad fate, indeed) I think I would stick with Pliny. However, they’re both world-class beers and I feel guilty that I am drinking them both at the same time. I know that there are starving children out there. Forgive me.

The Desolation of Smaug – Thoughts


Well, they’ve done it again. Those nerds at Weta Digital have conjured another fully-formed digital character that is expressive, fascinating, and generally quite evil.

Smaug, the stupendous.

After Gollum, Caesar, and all of those blue cat aliens, what else could they do to set the bar higher?

Get Benedict Cumberbatch to voice the character. That’s what.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug weirdly fractures its storyline and takes a great deal of focus away from the personal development of Bilbo, instead choosing to iris out for a much larger-scale view of the events which are so nicely encapsulated in the slender tome that makes up the printed, book-form story this film is based upon.

And yet it all works. There is a great deal more world-revealing going on in this film, and some of it even feels rushed. Gandalf virtually splinters off into his own, distinct storyline for the majority of the picture (which created something of an existential issue for Ian McKellan while shooting scenes for this particular installment.)

There are exotic locales and fantastic beasts of all kinds, and plenty of action. I found myself dreaming up a ridiculous sequence involving the dwarves’ Barrel-Rapids Escape® (future name of a ride at the inevitable Middle Earth World Theme Park) right on the cusp of when said sequence actually unfolded in the film. And my, what a cartoonish and incredible sequence it is. Full of Legolas and arrows and orcs and glory.

There are some vague, political themes floated at Laketown (pun intended) and Bard the Bowman is merely known as Bard the Barge-man. Stephen Fry does a delightful turn as the ignominious Master of Laketown, and Stephen Colbert plays one of his lackeys. Ryan Gage does his best to skirt the Wormtongue comparisons by pushing his character, Alfrid, into Gilliam territory.

Everything culminates in a ruined-Erebor action sequence that is really strange, but definitely awesome. And seeing this film in 3D is a must. The action is dizzying. And there’s Benedict Cumberbatch. His voice also utters the Black Speech of Mordor as the shapeless Necromancer.

No Gollum in this one. Kind of a bummer. Gotta love Smaug, though.

2012 ~ The Year in Review Begins

2012 - The Year in Review

Beginning on December 21, 2012, I am posting a daily encapsulation of the year’s finest attributes.

One year ago, I awoke for the first time in Southern California as my home. Though I was barely unpacked, with my wife and two cats in tow, I was giddy with the possibilities and challenges the coming new year would hold.

We had driven from Texas in our little Honda, with worldly possessions and said cats, and arrived in San Diego in the midst of pouring rain (really?) on the evening of December 17th, 2011. Our first home was in the guest room of a house built in the 80s. We slept on an air bed and used an old bookshelf for a dresser.

We found church by way of a garage sale and attended on our first Sunday in town. Nearly every family in this church actively homeschools their children. Both of us grew up homsechooled. Needless to say, we are an active part of the very same congregation here today.

The winter was the first one I spent without so much as a snowflake or gust of frigid wind. Born and raised in Ohio, I was accustomed to a windswept environment framed by the skeletal branches of hibernating trees. Instead, I was treated to a sometimes-rainy, mostly green winter with frequent trips to the beach.

In May, we moved out of our first home and I flew back to Ohio for a little gig shooting a feature. Bree house-sat at an apartment in L.A. and took care of the cats. When I returned, we searched for a new place to live and found one right down the street from our previous place. The day after we moved in, I was called in to interview at a natural foods grocer 3 blocks away, hired 2 hours later, and began work the very next day. Prayer works, people.

Over the next 7 months, we gathered stability as I worked and Bree managed the homestead. In August, our roommate left and we gained a new one, a dental assistant in-training who is also a Christian and a terrific person to boot. Together, we have gradually been turning our humble apartment into something that is more “furnished” and festive. We still have a long way to go, i.e. obtaining actual communal furniture, but we are very thankful for our home.

As the holidays descended I was initiated into a conversation about the possibility of filling a position at a local company doing some really incredible work. That conversation extended on for a couple months and culminated in a job offer, which I accepted on a Sunday morning with a handshake. Kind of crazy how these things transpire, but then again, looking back at 2012, I can say for sure that God has never been more obviously maneuvering in my life, before. It’s as though He’s planting flags all over my road map, saying, “I was there!”

I could go into plentiful detail about all the ways in which God showed up this past year, however I will save some of those stories for journals and future postings.

Stay tuned for my next post, 2012: The Year in [iPhone] Photographs.

Book Review: Ubik by Philip K. Dick


I am Ubik.
Before the universe was, I am.
I made the suns.
I made the worlds.
I created lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there.
They go as I say, they do as I tell them.
I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows.
I am called Ubik but that is not my name.
I am.
I shall always be.

I have a favorite science fiction author. His name is Philip K. Dick. If you find yourself reading this blog or in my company having a conversation about, oh, anything, you may hear me drop his name. His fame has only grown since his death in 1982, roughly one year before my birth. Like other heroes I have come to admire, such as Townes Van Zandt and William Wyler, I will not get to meet him, in this life.

I found one of his more well-known and oft-referenced books, Ubik, at my local library. I checked it out, and I read it. I digested it. For some reason, when I take a book by PKD and sit down to read it, I find my mind wanders. As a writer, his form is not especially bracing, nor is it overly stylized. Often, his books read like the diary of a solitary, washed-up, blue collar worker at or near the end of his rope, as indeed his protagonists are often cast. I think the particular aspect of his writing which causes my mind to wander- vigorously wander, as a top set free from a string- is its prescience. Dick’s incisive wit sizes up our present, evolving situation to an uncanny degree of accuracy. Oh sure, in his vision of the future we might all be flying on rockets to the moons of Jupiter, but the basic structure of human society is vividly realized in a way that seems both plausible and unsettling.

Ubik paints a future where humans have evolved the capacity for psionic powers such as telepathy, precognition, and other fascinating abilities. Think X-Men or Heroes, but without the grandiose notion that the responsibility to serve all mankind- or destroy all mankind- is the primary function of such humanoids. No, indeed, the primary function of such humanoids is to go to work for a firm which specializes in deploying them as agents who will infiltrate target organizations to accomplish the goals of a paying customer. Taking this basic idea of adaptation / survival of the fittest one more step, the book also introduces a subset of humanity with the ability to negate the psionic powers. These humanoids go to work for a rival firm that deploys them as agents to track the psionic humans and perpetually dampen their ability to perform.

Naturally, the protagonist of this book is, drumroll, a normal human being who operates equipment designed to detect psionic fields. He is, of course, a bachelor, and he is destitute and constantly needing to bum a nickel or quarter from a friend or coworker in order to get by. His name is Joe Chip.

The book also concerns a concept of reality that manifests itself in several of Dick’s short stories and novels. Richard Linklater’s film Waking Life is quite possibly inspired directly from this idea. In my opinion, the most eloquent explanation of this concept actually takes place in the fractured internal monologue of Robert Arctor, the drug-addled protagonist of Dick’s latter-day masterwork A Scanner Darkly (which was given the silver-screen treatment by Linklater in 2007, using the same, rotoscoping animation technique as on Waking Life).

This will give me time to think, he reflected as he wandered into the cafeteria and lined up. Time. Suppose, he thought, time is round, like the Earth. You sail west to reach India. They laugh at you, but finally there’s India in front, not behind. In time — maybe the Crucifixion lies ahead of us as we all sail along, thinking it’s back east…

The First and Second Coming of Christ the same event, he thought; time a cassette loop. No wonder they were sure it’d happen, He’d be back.

Ubik, the namesake of the book, doesn’t manifest itself until a good chunk of the main storyline has transpired. A team of inertials (the humanoids with anti-psi powers) is assembled to investigate a serious threat from a rival team of psionics on the moon. When they get there, all is not as it seems…

There is a girl among the inertials with the disconcerting power of being able to alter the past, thus altering the present. The people she involves in episodes displaying her abilities still retain memories from the previous timelines, however they are never quite sure whether these memories are reliable. Various events take place in the story which may- or may not- be caused by a greater power. Writing appears on walls, messages are found inside of cigarette cartons, and a holographic commercial for a product in a spray can, called Ubik, plays for the protagonist. When the inertials start to mysteriously disappear, a sinister purpose is slowly revealed.

Only Joe Chip, the regular human, the one who is perpetually broke and hopelessly single, can muscle through to figure out what is at stake. In the process, he encounters various incarnations of Ubik: a balm, a tonic, and a spray can. He refrains from using it, because, after all, he has no clue what it even does! Meanwhile, currency begins to rapidly lose value, newspapers begin to report older and older news, and household appliances slowly revert to their more ancient incarnations.

This novel actually references and borrows heavily from an earlier PKD short story entitled, What the Dead Men Say. In that story, there are cryonic coffins which recently-deceased people can be put into, allowing their brains to remain alive for decades longer, and for conversations to be carried out with the dead. Technically, these individuals are in a state of “half-life” as the book calls it, and are preserved so that the living may consult them for advice, or just emotional relief. It’s a fascinating concept. The Spanish film Abre Los Ojos borrows on this idea, as well. Joe Chip’s boss has a wife in “half-life” and she is consulted for help. The cryonic “moratoriums” where the dead are filed away are devoid of psionic interference.

Is the narrative of Ubik confusing? Yes, a bit. Dick actually wrote a screenplay version of the novel during his life. It has never been put into production. He had a very interesting idea for how to actually film the story and present it in theaters. Perhaps someday, someone will tackle an audiovisual adaptation with success.

Until then, I am left to imagine the sight of someone holding up a canister of Ubik would look like, though I do have Terry Gilliam.

Terry Gilliam holding PKD aerosol can
From an episode of the BBC show Arena, entitled, “Philip K Dick: A Day in the Afterlife”

I am Ubik

Thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises is a more fitting and visceral third act than any other superhero series hitherto created. I believe it will be successful and popular, though I also believe it will be open to rather broad interpretations by the audience.

I did not prepare for this viewing by re-watching the first two films. In point of fact, several years have elapsed since I last viewed Christopher Nolan’s second entry in his Batman saga, The Dark Knight. I watched it in true 15/70 IMAX in the theater on Navy Pier, Chicago, a place which was also one of the picture’s physical filming locations. The experience was one of titanic, mesmerizing awe. The Dark Knight Rises meets and/or exceeds this level of stunning grandeur in multiple ways.

Batman Begins was all about exploring the conditions and choices that lead Bruce Wayne to consider becoming the Batman. One of the core themes of the film is overcoming intense fear. “And why do we fall, Bruce?” is the memorable line delivered by Linus Roache, the actor who played Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne, “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

The Dark Knight was about ratcheting up the tension by confronting Batman with a chaotic force of evil, personified in Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker, a villain so incomprehensible, even his own ‘explanations’ for his existence are laced with obvious falsehoods. Batman does battle with purposeful, wicked villains, and then he must deflect, and somehow diffuse, the chaos The Joker induces as well. By the end of The Dark Knight, Batman himself has become even more vilified by the city he is trying to protect, and suffers profound personal loss.

I’m not a huge Batman buff, meaning I haven’t obsessively read all of the comics, watched the television programs, and I didn’t grow up with the absurd, live action cartoons that Tim Burton directed, nor the two follow-up duds that killed the character’s Hollywood potential for a spell. Therefore, I cannot attest to the purity of these films’ vision concerning the translation of essential threads from the massive corpus of Batman stories that exist. What I can say is that Christopher Nolan has crafted a nuanced, layered, and thoroughly complete arc for Batman’s character in these three films. I find this to be a terrific achievement, and one that is likely more important and more astounding than many people presently realize (and it sure seems like a lot of people are in Nolan’s corner).

The completion of this trilogy is satisfying, contains tremendous action sequences, and exudes a richness in layers of subtext to be discovered and debated. And that is all I will say on the film.

Book Review ~ Galactic Pot Healer by Philip K. Dick

Galactic Pot Healer
Cover for the 1st Edition

One day, my wife decided to explore her way down to the Escondido Public Library. She found a wealth of books and a relatively awesome selection. I followed her back and immediately did what I had the habit of doing anytime I visited a library: search their catalog for books by Philip K. Dick.

What I discovered was a relatively large selection of PKD’s work. I promptly checked out an armful of them.

Hithterto, I have primarily fed myself with PKD’s short fiction stories, having amassed just about the entirety of his work in the medium. I’ve read about a zillion of them. Of his novels, I have only read four:

and now, Galactic Pot Healer (1969)

I’ll spare any of the major plot details and simply say this: Galactic Pot Healer is a glorious mess of competing themes.

Joe Fernwright is a pot healer. He possesses the long-forgotten skills to practicing the art of ceramics repair. Nothing is made from pottery anymore, as everything is composed of plastic. The entire Earth is subject to one, vast mélange of a government that is basically a socialist police state.

“Our government is the ultimate version of socialism, everyone is aced out in the end.” ~ Joe Fernwright

When reading a book- particularly a science fiction book- one has to mentally engage that mechanism of imagination, in order to fully inhabit the world of the book. In the case of Galactic Pot Healer, one has to quite literally take the boundaries of the imagination and shatter them against the wall. The pure quantity of literary, theological, and philosophical information being tossed about would be enough to glaze the eyes of most laymen.

Joe receives a job offer to go heal some pots from a mysterious, off-world, possibly even divine, source. He struggles with whether or not to accept the offer and leave Earth for some distant planet in order to participate in the undertaking. Obviously, he must go. He meets a pretty girl. Various supranatural events occur.

In my view, the basic story was primarily about a man trying to find his place in the universe, and to discover whether or not the work he performed actually mattered. Dick casts overtones of immeasurable significance are over Joe’s potential undertaking, yet the ultimate purpose of the work (ostensibly, to reverse entropy and challenge a manifestation of the concept of deterministic ‘fate’) is ultimately left to the side of the narrative.

The book’s conclusion would seem to throw into doubt the ‘good-ness’ of creation as spawned from the efforts of any being lacking perfection. Even the divine elements of the story exhibit qualities of indecision, volatility, desire, rage and selfishness.

Joe Fernwright, pot healer, individual, and an essential component of a greater plan, is faced with a choice that pits his individual will against the will of many. His struggle to produce meaningful work may end in triumph, or it may end in tears. Can any being aside from God create, then rest, and look upon that creation and call it “good”?

Next up is Radio Free Albemuth (published posthumously in 1985)