A Look Back on 2017

Much can be said about 2017, not all of it good. However, it can’t be denied that the sheer number of quality movies that came out this year was impressive, and for that, we are grateful. I wanted to take a look back at some of the year’s cinematic highlights and give sentence-long reviews for the films I saw and loved, the ones I’ve still yet to see, and a couple of other bonus categories at the end. Films are arranged in the order they were released, natch. Enjoy this jaunt through 2017’s cinematic hits!


The Lego Batman Movie
: Despite being comprised of animated Lego blocks, this goofy, fun flick nails the Batman character; he’s cool but emotionally stunted and codependent on the villains he repeatedly faces.


Dafne Keen and Hugh Jackman in Logan

Logan: Hugh Jackman gives Wolverine a heart-rending send-off in this bloody, powerful Western.

Wonder Woman
: Someone (Patty Jenkins, bless her) finally gets a woman-led superhero movie right.

The Big Sick
: A funny and heartfelt look at modern love, complicated by unexpected illness and culture clash (based on the real-life romance between comedian Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon).

baby driver

Lily James and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver

Baby Driver
: The coolest action musical you’ll ever see.

War for the Planet of the Apes: Man versus ape elevated to Shakespearian levels of pathos.

Dunkirk: A skillfully wrought war flick that’s light on dialogue and heavy on tension (or as my friend called it, Anxiety: The Movie).

Thor: Ragnarok: The god (or is it lord?) of thunder dishes out quips and sparks in this candy-colored romp through space.


Frances McDormand in Three Bilboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: This small-town portrait of rage and vengeance simmers with biting wit and explores questions of justice and forgiveness (among other heady topics).

: Eye-popping animation, catchy songs, and attention to detail all make for a solid Pixar tale set in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos.

The Disaster Artist: A hilarious and surprisingly uplifting look behind one of the most bafflingly awful movies ever made.


Daisy Ridley in The Last Jedi

The Shape of Water: A dark, Cold War-era fairy tale romance from one of the most imaginative directors working today.

Str Wars: The Last Jedi: The latest entry in the decades-old franchise treads new ground, stylistically and thematically, to overall success.



Get Out: Because real-life racists are a lot scarier and more insidious than made-up monsters.

Spider-Man: Homecoming: Petey actually looks like a high schooler this time (also heard this one described as The Breakfast Club meets superhero movie, which I dig).

It: This adaptation of the first half of Stephen King’s iconic clown-based tome serves up frights, but is apparently more focused on coming-of-age drama.


Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049

Bladerunner 2049: Based on the visuals and sonic landscape, I probably should try to see this one on a big screen, yeah?

Lady Bird: It seems like literally everyone who saw this movie found something relatable in this mother-daughter drama.


SURPRISED ME (In a Good Way)
The Fate of the Furious: Not only did this over-the-top action flick deliver on every insane premise promised in the trailer, but it also made me want to see a spin-off movie starring The Rock and Jason Statham thwarting international terrorists while babysitting Vin Diesel’s newborn kid.

SURPRISED ME (In a Not-So-Good Way)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Plot contrivances and a poorly-sketched villain pit our band of space misfits against each other in a sequel that fails to live up to the humor and charm of its predecessor.

the thing

Kurt Russell in The Thing

The Thing (1982)
: Sporting a level of atmospheric tension and practical effects that still astound, The Thing absolutely deserves its title as one of the best horror films of all time.

Logan: Every emotional beat of this film rings true; it transcends the superhero genre and deftly explores the classic Western tropes of violence, aging, and passing the torch on to a new generation.


I doubt that 2018 will match 2017 in terms of sheer number of hit films, but here’s hoping for more great times at the movies in the coming year.

Cheers, all!



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The Muppet Christmas Carol and the Power of Place

I’ve said before that a great movie is one that you can revisit time and again and glean something new from it each time. The great movie that inspired this post is The Muppet Christmas Carol, the best adaptation of the Dickens classic (I will fight you on this). Specifically, I wanted to focus on a certain scene that stood out to me on this year’s viewing.

In this scene, Scrooge (played by the inimitable Michael Caine) is transported to a moment from his childhood by the waiflike Ghost of Christmas Past. He finds himself standing in his old classroom and gazes upon himself as a boy, dutifully toiling away at his desk.


Simply being in this place again has a noticeable effect on Scrooge. He slowly paces the musty, light-filled classroom with a sort of reverence.

“I know it all so well, spirit,” he says. “The desks… the smell of the chalk…” He turns to face his ghostly companion, not without a hint of pride. “I chose my profession in this room.”

This year, upon hearing Caine’s delivery of that last line, tears leapt to my eyes.

Because I’m sentimental by nature, I ascribe a lot (maybe too much) meaning to places. Places become inexorably connected to a certain time in one’s life and get caught up in our feelings and memories. This scene from The Muppet Christmas Carol got me thinking about classrooms.

I’ve only recently embarked on my teaching career. I’ve taught a few different classes at a few different colleges. In some cases, I’ve taught in the same room from semester to semester.

The rooms themselves have been mostly unremarkable. The majority of them are square, windowless rooms with dull carpet and beige walls. A dry erase board faces rows of long, Formica-covered desks with rolling chairs shoved underneath them. The rooms are utilitarian, with nothing too noteworthy about them.

young scrooge

And yet… even though I find myself in an interchangeable beige room from semester to semester, my experience in that room is never the same. The gathering of the specific group of individuals that meet in this room at this specific point in time will never take place again, making each semester-long interaction rare, special, and un-replicable.

The things in our lives gain significance because we grant them significance. In these classrooms, I’ve seen friendships form, fielded weighty questions that gave me pause, and witnessed epiphanies with the power to shift long-held perceptions about the world. Like any spot granted a plaque or historical marker, these rooms become significant because of what happens in them.

When the Ghost of Christmas Past urges Scrooge to reflect upon the time he spent in his old classroom, Scrooge dismisses the significance of those days long past.

“They were all very much the same,” he says. “Nothing ever changed.” Indeed, as he watches his childhood pass before his eyes, he sees himself sitting and studying in the same modest classroom year after year.

You changed,” the spirit points out.

It’s easy to forget the simple magic of a place like a classroom, a space where many disparate lives meet, clash, and influence one another. This year, The Muppet Christmas Carol helped remind me of the power of this place. Like Scrooge, any one of my students may choose their profession in this unassuming little room, discovering what they want to do with the rest of their life.

This semester is coming to a close, but it won’t be long before I find myself standing again before a smudged dry erase board and some folding desk tables, ready to bear witness to something singular and extraordinary.


Stray thoughts:

  • Thanks, Muppet Christmas Carol, for inspiring this post and giving me an excuse to wax poetic about classrooms.
  • This year marks the film’s 25th anniversary, if you needed an excuse to revisit it.
  • Shout out to Sam Eagle for providing me with one of my many teaching inspirations.


Coming soon: a look back on the films of 2017!

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Logan transcends the “superhero movie”


Much has been said about Logan. Many have praised it, discussed its R-rating, and noted that it’s Hugh Jackman’s last turn as a character he’s played for the past seventeen years. The trailers for this film raised my hopes high and the end product more than delivered. But those expecting just another entry in the X-Men franchise will no doubt be disappointed with this unusual film.

Logan a departure from the tried-and-true superhero movie formula, with its pared-down cast, simplified plot, and exploration of some essential questions that have eternally plagued humanity. If this doesn’t sound like X-Men: Days of Future Past, that’s because it’s not. It’s a contemporary western. It’s a character study. And I’d even go so far to say that it’s art.

At their core, westerns are about good versus evil, which is why the classic westerns like High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) still hold up today. Later westerns still explored this theme but moved away from black-and-white morality and served up morally ambiguous leads like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Jackman follows Eastwood’s lead beautifully, presenting us with a man weighing what he’s done against what he must do. Previous X-Men films reveal Logan’s tragic, violent origins and follow his journey to come to terms with his identity. He is gifted with extraordinary destructive power, but chooses to use it for good, as best he can.

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 11.46.56 PM.pngFast-forward to Logan, to the year 2029, where the makeshift family Wolverine built over the years is gone, and the hope that he could change the future for the better has dried up. Gone is the higher calling and the noble causes that Charles Xavier instilled in him. His existence is now about day-to-day survival and dulling the ever-present physical pain that signals his nearing end.

If this sounds unbearably bleak, think of the countless Westerns that begin the same way. The washed-up, once-legendary hero is a mainstay of the genre, as is the introduction of a youth who forces the hero out of his rut and into action again. Enter X-23 (a stellar Dafne Keen), who evokes memories of True Grit‘s Mattie Ross in her ability to keep a grizzled old man in line. While the film (unsurprisingly) doesn’t much indulge in sappy or lighthearted sentimentality, rest assured that it does have its share of laughs and heartwarming moments. Remember another Western mainstay: passing the torch on to the next generation as the old hero rides off into the sunset.

The X-Men films have to date been characterized by an expansive cast of characters and at times convoluted plot-lines (characteristics of stories told across hundreds of comic issues penned by dozens of authors). In Logan, there are big things going on in the background, sinister machinations that threaten the lives of many, but they’re ancillary to the real focus of the film, which is Logan the man. In Logan, we have a flawed individual, extraordinary but fallible, irascible but ultimately caring. We see him at the end of his life, struggling with his mistakes and shortcomings, and seeing his flaws reflected back at him in the form of a young girl. Logan ultimately concerns itself with the fate of this man and this child, which, I think, is what most notably separates it most from the run-of-the-mill “superhero” flick.

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 11.54.38 PM.png

Typically, in the Marvel and DC movies we know, the fate of the world is at stake (or at least the fates of hundreds or thousands of lives) and the final act of the film is a big city-destroying showdown that averts the massive crisis du jour. In Logan, we don’t cap things off with a scene of large-scale destruction, nor do we get to know the ultimate fate of the scorched, bleak America of 2029. This is a film set on a much smaller scale, a character study wrapped in a simple narrative. The simplicity of the story (deliver person from Point A to Point B and outrun bad guys) allows the film room to breathe and to ponder some Big Questions.

Humans have always and will always be preoccupied with thoughts of how and when their lives will end. As such, a film about an aging legend facing death is nothing new, but, thanks to the added element of mutant powers, Logan explores this concept through an interesting lens. What happens when a person who is effectively immortal finally starts to succumb to old age and decay? And in the case of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), what does the loss of one’s mind mean to the owner of the most extraordinary mind on the planet?

Fantastical elements aside, Logan tackles age-old questions familiar to anyone with a beating heart. Who are we when we lose what we think defines us? What legacy do our choices leave behind? Will we do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing everything we have? This is why I call this movie artful and even poetic. It raises these difficult questions and explores them, but doesn’t presume to have all the answers. We are left to turn over these questions in our minds after the credits roll, and, really, isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Challenge us, make us think? The ability to get at the heart of human existence is what elevates a piece of media and makes it endure throughout the ages.

Logan is no mere “superhero movie.” It’s so much more.



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Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Taika Waititi’s signature style

Taika Waititi has rapidly become one of those directors whose work I will go see simply because his name is attached to it. His 2014 indie horror comedy What We Do In the Shadows and his work with Flight of the Conchords has cemented him in my mind as a brilliant writer who knows how to highlight the mundane hilarity in the absolutely absurd.


Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), based on the book by Barry Crump, follows the exploits of a delinquent, wannabe gangster (Julian Dennison) who is placed in the care of a couple (Sam Neill and Rima Te Wiata) living out on the edge of the New Zealand bush. Through a series of losses and misunderstandings, the boy, Ricky, and his “Uncle” Hec become stranded in the wilds and accidentally spark a national manhunt.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is Secondhand Lions meets Up meets Moonrise Kingdom. It’s got Wes Anderson-esque elements: an excellent soundtrack, quirky characters, and chapter titles appearing onscreen. But it manages to stay more grounded and avoid the dollhouse artifice that defines Anderson’s style. Instead, Waititi’s all about little moments between his small cast of characters, which makes it feel more like the first two movies than the third.


Director Taika Waititi on the set of Hunt for the Wilderpeople

The film definitely has moments of deep melancholy, but they are balanced by genuinely heartwarming and hilarious moments. The whole “two lost souls filling a gap in each others’ lives” trope should be clichéd, but Waititi plays it well, never letting it slide too far into saccharine territory. Also, the side characters that pepper the film inject moments of pure side-splitting glee into the story. The best ones include Rachel House as a Child Services agent with Terminator-like determination, Rhys Darby as a tinfoil hat-wearing recluse, and Waititi himself as an awkward minister spouting baffling analogies about Jesus.

Waititi started small, but soon, we’ll see his handiwork play out on one of the biggest cinematic stages to date: the Marvel Universe. He’s the director of Thor: Ragnarok, which comes out this November. The news that he was helming this flick ratcheted my anticipation levels from “Meh” (following the forgettable Thor: The Dark World) to an enthusiastic “Sign-Me-The-Heck-Up.”

The “Team Thor” short that aired while Captain America: Civil War was in theaters encapsulates that Taika-esque tone that pervaded Shadows and hopefully gives us a taste of what we can expect from Ragnarok.

When asked in an interview what elements of his distinctive directorial style will make their way into Ragnarok, Waititi replied, “what I want the audience to leave the cinema carrying with them is a sense of joy, really.”

That sums up his work pretty darn well, I’d say. And I’m all about it.



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PAC is back!

Back in 2014, I announced that I had joined a publishing group called Paper Animals Collective. We published a collection of short stories around Valentine’s Day called Perspectives on Love.

Now, we’ve added a fourth member to our crew and are back in the publishing saddle. Our latest effort, called Sunsets, is a collection of poems accompanied by some fantastic artwork done by the very talented Theresa Hultberg. The best part? It’s all free to download! Get it here, and enjoy some talented writers’ sunset-inspired poems.

We’ve also started a blog here on WordPress, where the four of us will be taking turns sharing our thoughts on whatever strikes our fancy. I wrote a post recently about making Spotify playlists and how the process of compiling songs relates to the writing process.

That was a very link-heavy post, but there’s a lotta cool stuff going on that I had to share! In other news, it’s almost Halloween, and there’s a new Homestar Runner Halloween toon, so all is well.


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Stranger Things: Nostalgia Done Right


Before I sat down to watch the new Netflix-exclusive series Stranger Things, I asked my friend—who was already a few episodes in—what the show was about.

He answered my question with a question. “What do you think makes a good nostalgia piece?” he asked.

I had to stop and think. The first thing to come to mind was not well-done nostalgia, but its opposite. I thought of the 2011 novel Ready Player One, or as I think of it, “Hey, Remember That?: The Book.”

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is set in 2044, and follows the exploits of characters completely immersed in a virtual reality world à la Second Life. The creator of this virtual world was obsessed with the decade of his youth, the 1980s, and injected his geeky obsessions into his world. He creates a Dungeons & Dragons-style quest for the denizens of his virtual world to complete, and this quest requires an encyclopedic knowledge of all the bits of nostalgia he himself adored. And so, the teen protagonists of the novel think, speak, and breathe John Hughes and Atari references.

As a kid, I remember struggling away at the Atari game Adventure and teaming up with my brother and cousins to beat Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the SNES. I jammed out to 80s synth pop and laughed at Monty Python until my sides hurt. Ready Player One seemed tailor-made for me. So why didn’t I love it?

Because, frankly, it made me feel like Terry Jones in this famous Monty Python sketch:

nudge nudge

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more!

As an audience member, I hate being winked at. It’s a cheap, quick way for the author or director to attempt to forge a connection with his or her audience. To me, it always feels lazy, and it never feels earned. So even when Cline inserts a reference to Oingo Boingo, one of my all-time favorite bands, it’s not enough to get me on board. Yes, I got the reference. Annnnd….?

So, what makes a good nostalgia piece?

“It’s… subtle,” I finally said. “It’s more than broad references to pop culture. It’s in the details in the background—the patterns on the couch, the color of the walls.”

At this, my friend silently leveled a finger at me. Bingo.


Promotional art for Stranger Things

Stranger Things, the brainchild of twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, is the epitome of nostalgia done right. The show begins in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana in 1983 and with a group of boys, maybe ten or twelve years old, immersed in a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The campaign ends and the boys all return home—all except one. Will, the smallest and most sensitive of the group, has a run-in with a mysterious horror on the road and vanishes into the night. As Will’s friends, his family, and the town’s police chief dig deeper into his disappearance, they uncover a government conspiracy, a strange girl with stranger powers, and a threat from beyond their plane of existence.

As the supernatural horror tale unfolds, its influences become clear. E.T. The Goonies. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Firestarter. Aliens. Shades of each of these pieces inform the sensibilities of the show, but never overshadow the show’s unique flavor.

Matt Duffer sums it up simply in an interview: “It was like, ‘We love Stephen King and we love Spielberg and John Carpenter and we love Silent Hill’ and so we were trying to infuse [Stranger Things] with all the things that we love.”


Winona Ryder in Stranger Things

“Infuse” is the key word here. The Duffer brothers’ love of these pieces of media is clear, and they’re right to draw inspiration from the things they love. But instead of just referencing a litany of movies or musicians from the 80s, they infuse these things into the world to flesh it out and make it feel lived-in and real.

Yes, I had many moments of gleeful geekery when I caught references sprinkled throughout the show. At one point, Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” softly emanates from a character’s car radio. And at another, the iconic movie poster for The Thing leans against a basement wall. But that’s the thing—these little nuggets are in the background. They don’t comprise the meat of the show, but rather exist to enhance it.

And that subtlety I mentioned earlier? It’s there in spades. One look at any of the characters’ living rooms, and you’re instantly transported to this suburban neighborhood circa 1983. The patterns, the color schemes are all on-point. And all this detail, inexorably tied to time and place, heightens the story’s authenticity. Cold War paranoia pervades the small Indiana town where everyone knows everyone. Kids communicate via walkie-talkies. Teens sneak over to their friend’s house and shotgun cans of Schlitz when their parents aren’t home.

The strength of Stranger Things is in its tight storytelling, its fascinating world, and its complex, charming characters. The Duffer brothers understand that reference without substance, without synthesis into something new, is as empty and unsatisfying as [insert 80s reference here].




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Horror Cinema Over the Years

I’ll be the first to brand myself a weenie when it comes to spooky stuff, but relatively recently, I’ve become more fascinated with the horror genre. I think it’s the psychological aspect of it that intrigues me. Why do we fear what we fear? What part of what scares us is rooted in primal, evolutionary mechanisms, and how much is learned? How do different cultures manifest their anxieties?

One thing’s for sure: horror has been around as long as we’ve been telling stories. This much becomes evident in the mesmerizing video by Diego Carrera called “A History of Horror,” which chronicles some of cinema’s most iconic scares from the advent of film to present day. It’s fascinating to watch the progression of frights from pure spectacle to more sophisticated psychological horror.

A History of horror

We use art and pop culture as a means of discussing and understanding the questions and fears that plague us. And although entries in the horror genre are often placed on a lower rung of the proverbial pop culture ladder, we can use these works as a means to explore the recesses of our cultural consciousness. Recent flicks like It Follows and The Witch have deftly subverted and redefined genre conventions, proving that there is still much to explore within this familiar realm.

Plus, it’s just fun to be spooked sometimes.



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