2016: A Post-Mortem

far-side-9It’s very cliche to look back on the last day of the year, but that’s what I’m going to do. Just as with everyone else on the planet, there were highs and lows in my life in 2016. I accomplished some things, like publishing my second book, but I missed the mark on many others, like leaving my watch-through of Star Trek The Animated Series undone. Unlike many people, I am compulsive about keeping track of some things in my life digitally, and I wanted to take a look at how I spent my time in 2016 as the calendar turns over to a new year.

First up is my board game playing. I’ve cataloged both my collection and the number of games I’ve played using boardgamegeek.com since January 1, 2011.  That year, I logged 400 board game plays. In 2012 and 2013, my games played went down slightly, to 386 and 364, respectively. 2014 was a larger drop, with 268 games played, almost 100 less plays than the previous year. I played more or less the same amount in 2015, 260 total, including one month where I played a game every day, August.

Even before counting it up, I felt like 2016 would be another down year, and I was right. I only logged 212 board game plays this year. That doesn’t seem like too much of a drop on the surface, right? However, looking closer, I noticed I had exactly 100 plays of Magic: the Gathering logged in 2016. This is due to a game store opening up in my town, and my support of it. However, Magic is one of those games where you play many games each session. For many similar games, like Code Names or Coconuts, I just log one play no matter how many times I play a day. If I do that for Magic this year, I move down to 129 logged plays. That’s by far the lowest since I started keeping track, meaning I played roughly one third as many games in 2016 as I did in 2011!

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-5-54-50-pmIn addition to board gaming, I also use Goodreads to keep track of the books I read each year. Last year, I started a reading challenge, and set a goal to read 20 books. I did that, with days to spare. This year, my goal was 22 books, and I fell far short. I only read 15 books in 2016. I was feeling bad about this, as I hate not meeting my goals, but then I looked at my reading totals for prior years. Since 2012, the first full year in which I kept track, this year ranks as #2 on the list. I hope to read some more compelling books this coming year; several I read this year weren’t very good and I was stuck reading them for more than a month.

Since I love data about how I spend my time so much, this year, I began tracking what movies I watched using IMDB. We watch movies more than we watch TV, and so I knew that my total would be a big number. I just didn’t realize how big. Counting the one movie I watched twice this year (Captain America: Civil War), I watched 123 movies in 2016. That’s… a lot. An awful lot. Admittedly, I often put a movie on while I’m doing something else, like a bit of spreadsheet work, or painting miniatures. Still, 123 movies watched seems very, very high. During my six weeks off in the summer, I was watching, on average, a movie every day, and more than one several times. Movies are something I enjoy, for sure, but I think perhaps they are taking up a bigger piece of my free time pie than they should be.

pac-man-clockThere’s another area of my life that I am concerned about wasting time, and that is something I will call “time eaters”. I’m mainly thinking about three things here. First, social media, primarily Facebook but sometimes Twitter as well. Often, I catch myself watching some stupid viral animal video, or someone cooking a burrito, or a so-called life hack or a dumb political post or any one of a thousand other things that aren’t worth my time. I’ve got to be more mindful about the time I spend on these sites. Another one is Reddit; I read Reddit daily, often multiple times. A few minutes is fine, but when I’m perusing items 500-525 and still looking for something interesting to read, I could have used my time better.
The last “time eater” I want to eliminate from my life going forward are mobile games. Not all of them, of course; many I use to keep in touch with friends (Lords of Waterdeep multiplayer, for example), and others are certainly worthy games on their own (Hearthstone is something I love to play every day). I’m talking mainly about free to play games that use a timer or some other limitation to motivate you to spend money. For me, the biggest offender was Transformers Earth Wars. I love Transformers, and the gameplay was pretty good compared to prior Transformers mobile games (Battle Tactics was terrible). However, you actually end up playing the game less and less often as you progress, which seems backwards, and the rewards in game are not worth the effort. I spent way too much time and (sadly) money for an experience that ended up being nothing but frustrating. I quit playing last Monday and it has been great to not have the tyranny of the cool down timers shaping my life. Mobile games can be good, but I need to be more considerate of what I will spend my time and energy on.

All things considered, I would give myself a B- this year. I didn’t play enough video games, nor did I read enough books. I watched too many movies, played too many dumb mobile games, and consumed too much social media. Next year, I need to be better. I have some goals for myself in 2017, some related to the areas in this post, some not. Next week, I’ll share them.

 

Movie Review: Shin Godzilla

godzilla-resurgenceEarlier this month, I was quite excited to watch the newest Godzilla movie. For many, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but for me, it was a very special day. I enjoyed the last American Godzilla movie in 2014, but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the Japanese series. The last of those, the poorly named Godzilla Final Wars, came out in 2004. Twelve years later, Toho Studios  is back with Shin Godzilla. We drove three hours to the nearest theater showing it, the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City. It was a great experience, start to finish.

I wouldn’t usually mention the theater itself in a movie review, but the Alamo Drafthouse is worth talking about. It was my first time at one of these establishments, and it was probably the best trip to the movies I’ve ever had. Instead of playing boring commercials before the show, we were treated to a delightful series of Godzilla-related shorts. Several vintage trailers for older Godzilla movies made up the bulk of the pre-show. There was a brief bit of a Godzilla Island episode (a late 90s TV series that used actual action figures for the monster scenes). I especially loved the Spectreman clip and Bambi Meets Godzilla. All the quirky stuff they showed us got me even more hyped for the film itself.

I’ve been to exactly one theater that served food other than popcorn and pretzels before. It was less than amazing to eat bad chicken tenders and average french fries while sitting in a standard theater seat. The Alamo Drafthouse does it much differently. A helpful waiter took our order before the movie began. Just as the theater darkened, he returned, delivering our drinks and popcorn unobtrusively. There was a narrow table running the length of each row, very convenient for holding drinks and food. About a half hour in, our burgers arrived. They were fantastic. Connor and I had fries, while my wife chose to have hers on a bowl of greens and other salad-like stuff. Our drinks and popcorn were refilled every twenty minutes or so. Never once did the wait staff interrupt the movie, even when helping other people. The food was much better than I was expecting, and just added to the wonderful time we had watching the movie.

So what about the movie then? Was Shin Godzilla any good? I think it was great, and I’ll tell you why. We are now entering a spoiler zone, so if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to stop reading.

 

 

S
P
O
I
L
E
R
S

 

 

p9-schilling-shingodzilla-a-20160804-870x490Ever since the first Godzilla in 1954, all subsequent movies called back to the original monster. Even when the series was rebooted in 1984, 2000, and beyond, there was always a plot point about the return of the creature. Shin Godzilla abandons this concept. For the first time in over five decades, Godzilla is brand new, something never seen before, without any historical precedent. It’s refreshing to see Godzilla treated in this way. When you don’t automatically know it’s a giant radioactive reptilian monster, it adds to the sense of dread and danger of it all.

Compounding the sheer terror about what Godzilla might be is the shifting appearance of the creature throughout the film. At first, Godzilla is more a meteorological phenomenon, causing floods and such. Then a gargantuan tail and spiky back appear, causing panic. When Godzilla finally makes landfall, it looks far more alien than any version we’ve seen before. Initially, you see large, googly eyes which are almost comical, but then the undulating, tadpole-like nature of the beast is revealed and it’s horrifying. Over time, Godzilla evolves into more and more dangerous forms, before eventually taking on the more traditional bipedal stance. Even in this iteration, however, Godzilla is a far more revolting abomination than it has ever been before.

The historical theme for Godzilla has always been the dangers of nuclear weapons. In Shin Godzilla, the focus shifts away from the threat of external nuclear powers. The context is clearly the Fukushima disaster from 2011. Again and again, the government is portrayed as slow and ineffective in its response to Godzilla. These same concerns have been voiced concerning the release of radioactive material from the Fukushima nuclear plant after damage from a tsunami. In Shin Godzilla, bureaucrats are indecisive when dealing with the threat of the monster, and their ineptitude costs many Japanese lives. After one particularly grueling scene, many of the “old guard” politicians are killed, leaving behind only minor officials who are even less prepared to deal with Godzilla. It’s refreshing to see these new themes being used in a Godzilla film.

downloadOne of the best things about a giant monster movie is seeing a huge creature tear up a city. In Shin Godzilla, the level of destruction is off the charts. Not only is Godzilla now bigger than any previous iteration, it has more raw power than ever before. The classic atomic breath is brilliantly realized, and both awesome and awful in its use. The new ability to shoot beams from the back spines and tail is somewhat controversial, but I felt it made sense and was executed well. There is a sense of absolute hopelessness when seeing the sheer entropic force that Godzilla has. There is a sense of an ever growing death toll, something that is often glossed over in other kaiju films. This gives the scenes of destruction much more emotional impact than you’d expect.

As far as the special effects go, Shin Godzilla easily has the best of any previous Toho film. It compares quite favorably to the 2104 Godzilla, though Shin Godzilla had but a fraction of the budget of the American film. Not once did I think “MAN IN SUIT” while watching. Suitmation was likely still used but it looked brilliant, regardless. The cinematography was quite unique, much different than the standard monster movie fare, and the soundtrack was a great balance between classic themes and modern style. It’s easily the most cinematic film in the series since the original way back in the 50s.

I simply adored Shin Godzilla, and can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a big change from previous films, for certain, but not an upsetting one. The film seems to have been a big hit, and the ending was quite ambiguous, making it likely that a sequel will eventually come. I am very excited to see what direction Toho goes in the next Godzilla film. The little kid in me just can’t wait to see this new, creepy Godzilla take on another monster, if indeed that’s the direction they go. But they might not. That’s fine too, as there are still plenty of interesting stories that could be told with just the Big G alone…

Why I Love the Godzilla Movies of the 90s

PopCultureLeague-Logo-BigThe Pop Culture League challenge this week is another great one. Here There Be Monsters! I knew exactly what I wanted to write about: the King of Monsters himself, Godzilla! I have been a big fan of Godzilla ever since I was a kid. My first exposure to the big G was at the public library, in the Crestwood Monster series of books. I read all those books over and over again, but Godzilla was my favorite. (I’m lucky enough to still have a set of those books today!) Godzilla made frequent appearances on Saturday TV, and I remember watching many of the older Showa series Godzilla films on a grainy black and white TV set in my bedroom. We also rented Godzilla ’85 several times in the late 80s.

Then, in 1997, a new Godzilla movie came out. It wasn’t great, by any stretch of the imagination, but it did get me to thinking about my favorite monster again. By 1999, I was married and had a five year old son. In October of that year, AMC ran its annual Monsterfest, and ran nearly all the Godzilla movies, including several that I had never seen before. It turns out that they kept on making Godzilla movies after 1985! I was thrilled to learn about this, and went online to find out more about them. Between our VCR tape of Monsterfest and obtaining a few releases on VHS (thankfully plentiful due to the marketing of the ’97 American movie), my son and I were able to watch all the movies in what is known as the Heisei era. We watched them time and time again, wearing out the tapes. When son #2 arrived, we upgraded to DVD and eventually Blu-Ray. We rewatched all the 90s era movies in preparation for the 2014 American Godzilla, and with a new Japanese Godzilla being released this year, I decided to go through my favorite era in Godzilla history one more time. Here are quick reviews and ratings of each of these great films.

the_return_of_godzilla_poster_japan_1The Return of Godzilla (AKA Godzilla 1985)

In 1984, Toho brought back Godzilla after over a decade off. No longer the good natured defender of Earth, this time Godzilla was back to his roots as an unstoppable destructive force of nature. I have, as of this writing, only ever seen the American release of the film, which added in Raymond Burr, just as the 1950s Godzilla did. We had this on VHS, but it was extremely hard to get on DVD. Just last month, the movie was released on Blu-Ray. I am looking forward to watching the original, un-Americanized version for the first time.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Dr. Pepper Ads

Godzilla vs. Biollante

This is a solid entry. A scientist merges Godzilla cells with those of plants, hoping they will be able to thrive in desert conditions. Terrorists attack, destroying the cells and, sadly, killing the scientist’s daughter. The grief stricken father merges her cells with those of a rose, in order to keep her soul around. He also manages to add in Godzilla cells, because why not? The resulting creature is a plant-Godzilla hybrid, which is one of the coolest looking monsters you will ever see. Eventually, the big G shows up, there’s a titanic tussle or two, and it’s over. Weird, and quite dark for the series, but very watchable.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Angry Roses

mecha_king_ghidorahGodzilla vs. King Ghidorah

This is my personal favorite of ALL Godzilla films! It has literally everything. Time travellers from the future come to 1991 to meet an author. They plan to test his theory: Godzilla was a”Lost World” type dinosaur on a Pacific Island that mutated after exposure to radiation from nuclear weapons. They all go back in time, planning to destroy Godzilla before he is created. However, the future people leave behind three strange “pets”. Upon returning to the present, the critters have been mutated in Godzilla’s place, turning into King Ghidorah! The evil future people plan to use the three headed abomination to knock Japan down a peg, as they are the world leader in the 23rd century. The army uses a nuclear sub to recreate Godzilla (say what?), and the Big G and King Ghidorah fight! Godzilla wins, then attacks Tokyo. Everything looks bad, but then the sole friendly future traveller saves the day, piloting a cybernetically rebuilt version of King Ghidorah and drives Godzilla off. It’s absolutely nuts, from start to finish, and I love it.

Rating: 6 out of 5 Time Paradoxes

Godzilla Vs. Mothra: Battle for Earth

One of the things I liked about the Heisei era Godzilla movies was the continuity from one to the next. One of the major recurring themes is that humans are destroying the environment. Mothra appears in this one, returning after many classic appearances, in her traditional role as defender of humanity. Her darker foil, new character Battra, fights instead to defend the planet itself. The two come into conflict, because SYMBOLISM. Godzilla shows up, naturally, and he’s pretty much against both humans AND the earth. Mothra and Battra put aside their differences and take him on in both larva and flying form. The fight scenes in this one are particularly great. The fairy twins and their song are among our favorite parts of the entire franchise.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Gooey Webs

godzilla-vs-mechagodzilla-2-4Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla II

I love robots, and I love Godzilla, so it’s no surprise that I also love Mechagodzilla. Toho triple dips here by bringing back two more classic monsters, in addition to everyone’s favorite metal dinosaur. Rodan returns, also evolving into a more menacing flaming form known as Fire Rodan (makes sense). You’ll either love or hate the third returning alumnus: baby Godzilla! I’m not a big fan of the tyke, honestly. I know it seems odd to say it, in a genre known for goofiness, but the baby is just a bit too cheesy for my taste. Still, this one has Mechagodzilla and some great fight scenes, so I’ll bump it up higher than it by all rights should be.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Adorable Roars

Godzilla Vs. Space Godzilla

After the last movie drew heavily from the roster of classic monsters, we have a new main villain in this one. Pay attention here, or you might get lost. So apparently some Godzilla cells from Biollante escaped into space, and made their way through a black hole. The cells came out and formed into an evil version of Godzilla, with all sorts of spiky glowing crystals on its body. Sound weird? That’s because it is. It doesn’t make much sense at all, but really, is that a bad thing? Baby Godzilla is unfortunately back and more cutesy than ever. I love the way Space Godzilla looks, and the human-controlled combiner robot Mogera is pretty sweet. Still, this is unquestionably the weakest entry from the Heisei era.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Skreeonks

haneda3Godzilla Vs. Destroyer

After years of absorbing radiation, Godzilla is overheating. If he goes critical, Earth will be destroyed in the ensuing explosion. Scientists develop a freezing ray and use it to cool off the Big Red G. Meanwhile, baby Godzilla is now larger and renamed Godzilla Junior. The main baddie, Destroyer, is composed of multiple smaller critters that merge and evolve in several stages. Junior fights Destroyer, who hurts the little guy badly just as Godzilla arrives, red hot and ready to explode. The big guy fights valiantly then goes into meltdown. The resulting surge of energy defeats Destroyer, and then Godzilla dissolves into goo. Suddenly, the radiation levels fall, reviving Junior, who is now full sized! This was lots of fun, and a great send-off to the series, for sure.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Freezing Lasers

In ten days, I will be watching the latest Japanese Godzilla film! It’s called Godzilla Resurgence, or Shin Godzilla. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers since its release in Japan over the summer. It’s a shame I have to drive three hours away to get to a theater that’s actually showing the movie, but that’s just fandom for you. I’ll be sure to write a review with my thoughts on the new movie here!

Here are some of the other league entries for the week, or you can check them all out here.

Help! My House is Being Invaded by Wax Saucer Men!

PopCultureLeague-Logo-BigThis week’s Pop Culture League Challenge is a fun one! Here’s the question:

House of Wax: The local Wax Museum is having a fire sale and you have the opportunity to add a life-size, life-like action figure to your collection. Who do you choose?

First of all, if I were to be put into such a situation, I would probably pass on having ANY life-size wax figure. I am terrified of my own shadow once the sun goes down, and there is no way I’d want a realistic figure of any sort looming around and scaring me half to death when I momentarily forget that it’s just a sculpture. For Pete’s sake, I just about peed myself when a buddy put our life-size cardboard Princess Leia in my bed when I was out late on a date. It just wouldn’t be good for my blood pressure.

93463652_3ef5479914Having said that, I’m going to go off the wall, and reach way back into the memory bank. When I was a tiny tot, back in the late 70s, McDonald’s gave out space themed rubber erasers in various colors in Happy Meals. I had several, including a cool flying saucer and a rocket ship, but my favorite was a strange alien. I recall it being blue or green, but may be misremembering. I dearly loved that little alien but he was eventually lost or thrown out to wherever cool old toys disappeared to.

Fast forward to the mid 90s. I was a big monster movie buff, and picked up a copy of the Encyclopedia of Monsters at a local bookstore. It was full of pictures and information on hundreds of old horror and sci-fi movie monsters. Lo and behold, I turn the page and there was an alien that looked almost exactly like my old rubber eraser. It was from a movie called “Invasion of the Saucer Men”.

A few years later, when Ebay became a big thing, I looked there for a copy of “Invasion of the Saucer Men” for sale. There weren’t any legit copies available, but there was a nice bootleg VHS tape that I gleefully overpaid for. My expectations weren’t really high for the movie, and it absolutely met them. It’s one of those that’s so bad it’s good. Frank Gorshin as an obnoxious drunk is particularly fun, and at one point a severed alien hand grows an eyeball and attacks on its own. The fingers are sort of like needles, and inject alien blood that affects humans like alcohol. Seems weird, yeah, but Aliens have acid for blood and that makes about as much sense, right?

invasion-of-the-saucermen

So, without a doubt, if I were forced to get a wax figure for my collection, it would be one of the oddball alien Saucer Men. The look of them is iconic, in my opinion, and when you add in the C-movie cheesiness as well as the callback to a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy, you really can’t go wrong. BONUS: Invasion of the Saucer Men is on YouTube in its entirety. What a glorious time we live in!

Honorable mentions: a wax version of Godzilla or Optimus Prime.

Here are a few other entries that really stood out for me this week:

Collector’s Universe goes way back in time for a prehistoric amphibian.

Pop Rewind shared my trepidation for selecting a wax figure, because they are straight up creepy, really, seriously, they are.

And Cool and Collected chose my favorite actor that never wore a Godzilla suit.

You can read the rest of the Pop Culture League entries for this week here.

Ecto-Cooler Makes Me Feel… Okay, I Guess

Photo Jul 10, 5 28 49 PMI’ve figured out that people who are my age are the target demographic for most everything that is mass marketed these days. Properties that were big in the 80s when I was a kid are being mined voraciously for presentation in movie theaters and store shelves. Transformers, Star Wars, the entire Marvel cinematic universe (not purely 80s, but along the same lines), the list goes on and on. And now, Ghostbusters, a classic film beloved by many, is the latest nostalgia-fueled hype machine.

I like Ghostbusters. It’s a great movie. It’s perfect in nearly every way. However, I don’t LOVE Ghostbusters, not like I love Star Trek or Indiana Jones. I’ve probably watched it two or three times with my kids, but it’s not an annual must watch, like, say, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I don’t own Ghostbusters on DVD or Blu-ray. I like it, but I don’t go nuts for it; that’s the point I am trying to get across.

A few months back, news broke that Ecto-Cooler, a flavor of Hi-C drink that was loosely tied to Ghostbusters, was coming back. I generally ate school lunches as a kid, so I didn’t drink milk, and not much Hi-C of any flavor. I don’t have the nostalgia for it that I do Boo Berry or C-3POs cereal. However, everyone online was losing their minds over Ecto-Cooler’s return. When it appeared, cases of the retro drink were being sold on Ebay for exorbitant prices. I began looking for it when we went to the store, with no luck. Not finding Ecto-Cooler made my desire for it increase. I checked online to see if I could order some at anything close to retail price. Alas, it sold out nearly immediately when it did come in stock anywhere.

Photo Jul 10, 5 29 36 PMLo and behold, on July 1, my buddy Nick messaged me that Ecto-Cooler was in stock at Amazon. We were in the car at the time, driving to a church meeting. Turns out Ecto-Cooler is one of those Prime Pantry things. Prime Pantry is basically a method of ordering groceries and such where you choose items that fill up a percentage of a large box that is shipped for a flat rate. A case of twelve Ecto-Cooler cans cost $6.24, but filled only 22% of the Prime Pantry box. It seemed wasteful to ship the whole box for a drink I’d never even had before, and there were only five minutes before church services began. I first decided to just skip it and hope that the green stuff was still in stock later when I could fill that box more wisely.

But then, the anticipation and hype welled up in me. It was too much to resist. I filled my shopping cart with random stuff from Amazon’s suggested items. I ended up with a Prime Pantry box more than 99% full, and all it cost me was $55.86, including $5.99 for shipping. WHAT A BARGAIN, AMIRITE?

It turns out Prime Pantry boxes aren’t two day shipping. And it also turned out we decided to travel to visit Deana’s folks in Michigan for a few days. We left on the day the box would be delivered. On a highway somewhere in Indiana, Amazon notified me that our package had been delivered. My case of Ecto-Cooler was waiting on our porch. Worried that a big box from Amazon shouldn’t be left out for the duration of the trip, I contacted a friend to pick up the box for me.

Knowing my Ecto-Cooler was at home ready to drink turned my anticipation into something approaching obsession. I badly wanted, nay, NEEDED to taste it. We returned home late last Saturday evening, woefully, too late to stop and get the box. Sunday morning and afternoon were taken up by worship services. As soon as afternoon services were over, I texted my buddy. No response. We went shopping, stopped and got drinks (none of them green, sadly). Finally, early Sunday evening, I heard back from my friend. I wen to his place, made some small talk, grabbed the much larger than anticipated box, and headed home.

Photo Jul 10, 5 31 02 PMHere’s what was inside:

Oh, and, also, Hi-C Ecto Cooler Citrus Juice, 11.5 Ounce (Pack of 12), not even remotely close to optimum drinking temperature. Into the fridge three cans went. I waited impatiently for them to cool. To pass the time, I opened the packages of the Special Limited Edition Ghostbusters Twinkies I had picked up earlier that day at the store. Did I forget to mention that? Yes, the Ghostbusters hype was real. I don’t even like Twinkies, but one package boasted “Key Lime filling”, and I do like Key Lime. The other was coated in “White Fudge” which made it sound like a delicious Little Debbie Zebra Cake. As the temperature of the cans slowly dropped, I laid out two Twinkies to eat with my Ecto-Cooler, one of each flavor.

Finally, FINALLY, the cans were cold. I cracked one open, pouring a small sample for Deana and Connor. At long last I took a swig myself. The cool, tangy liquid hit my tongue sharply. I breathed in, like wine experts do in movies, trying to savor the aromas and distinctive flavors. I was expecting to have my mind blown, like the Stay-Puft Man when the Ghostbusters crossed the streams.

Photo Jul 10, 7 22 54 PMIt was OK. It reminded me of orange soda without the bubbles. Nothing special at all. Ect-OVERRATED.

I was disheartened. Perhaps the Twinkies would provide a more overwhelming culinary sensation? Not really. The Key Lime filling was barely lime at all, and the cake was pretty greasy. The White Fudge was all right on the outside, but the filling was too thick and gloppy. It reminded me of meringue, which I don’t care for at all.

It has been two days since the Ghostbusters marketing juggernaut bowled me over. I drank one Ecto-Cooler yesterday. The remaining Twinkies sit, uneaten, in the cabinet. I’d rather have a Cosmic Brownie over either of the two sponge cake treat options, any day. On the bright side, I’ve got enough wipes and TP to keep my bum happy for several weeks, and plenty of chips for lunches when I start back to work next week.

Movie Review: Captain America (1979 TV Movie)

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.31.06A couple weeks ago, my son and I started rewatching the Captain America and Avengers films in anticipation of Captain America: Civil War. I had actually not purchased Cap 2 or Avengers 2 on blu-ray, so I hopped over to Amazon and snagged them. One of those “Other Suggested Items” caught my attention: a DVD with both late 70s Captain America made for TV movies on it, for $4. How could I argue with that price? The day after we watched Civil War, I popped the DVD in and selected the first movie, to my son’s protest. “Just give it ten minutes,” I asked, and we did that, and more. It is one of those strange movies that are so bad they are good. Think Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, or The Giant Claw, but with a superhero instead of bad monster effects.

Cap ’79 begins with a scintillating sequence of a custom conversion van driving on the coast. This lasts for several minutes, and is accompanied by generic 70s era music. There are lots of aerial shots here. The producers clearly wanted to get as much mileage out of their helicopter rental as possible, because there are several such sequences wasting time over the course of the film. Occasionally, the camera zooms in enough to see a blond guy driving the van. He might or might not be Steve Rogers, for all we know at this point.

Steve Rogers (and Captain America later, no need to swap actors!) is played by Reb Brown. Mr. Brown is tall, broad shouldered, and handsome enough, but, at least at this point in his career, has no stage presence whatsoever. He is the cinematic equivalent of a potted plant; he looks pretty good, but doesn’t really do much other than take up space. We learn that the TV movie version of Steve Rogers is an ex military guy who is wandering the land, trying to find himself, or some such thing. I think mostly he just wants to drive that sweet van around. (Side note: I wonder what Steve would think of the A-Team van?)

After a scene where Steve draws a picture for a beach bum friend, the bad guys first appear. Said bad guys try to kill Steve by spraying fresh oil on the highway. What a diabolical and reliable scheme! Their motivation for attempting to murder Steve isn’t clear at this point in the film, and after watching it all, I’m still uncertain why they’re doing this, other than It’s In The Script. Steve survives the wreck (which was more accurately a fender bender), then uses a motorcycle for a while instead. I think maybe he was a pro motorcyclist or something? When he had time for that in between tours of duty, who knows, but whatever.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.32.44The country’s best scientist, Dr. Simon Mills, portrayed by Len Birman, gets in touch with Steve. I like Dr. Mills, the actor is very good, really the best thing in the movie. Doc informs our “hero” that years ago, Steve’s dad had created a super steroid (yes they straight up call it that) called F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain). I take it back what I said about Len Birman, I think that acronym is the best thing in the movie. Anyway, these steroids worked fine on Steve’s dad, but since he was murdered, no one has been able to make F.L.A.G. work. Not without killing a bunch of lab rats, anyway. Dr. Mills asks Steve to help them by giving blood and whatnot so that they can try to perfect the steroid formula. As a patriotic veteran, and innately noble soul, Steve graciously volunteers, even at great personal risk to himself.

Wait! No, that’s not what happens at all. This version of Steve Rogers wants nothing to do with any of it, he just wants to drive around, visit beaches, and be a starving artist. For real. Some hero this dude is.

Later, the bad guys corner Steve and he is gravely wounded. Dr. Mills, for some reason, is the presiding surgeon. He decides that the only way to save Steve’s life is to administer F.L.A.G. to him. Without Steve’s permission, of course. Within moments of his injection, Steve recovers. F.L.A.G. works as well on him as it did for his father. He’s up and around in record time. Feeling the emotional toll of his near death experience, a grateful Steve dons the costume and goes off in search of the bad guys to foil their plot.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.35.47Nope, wrong again! Steve is outraged at Dr. Mills for saving his life! The anger he shows is probably the most animated Reb Brown gets in the whole movie. It’s unfortunate that he only really acts when his character is being a jerk! The guy has no interest whatsoever in being a hero. It’s only after he gets out of the hospital and is attacked a THIRD time by the baddies (in a meat processing plant, naturally) that he changes his mind. He spends a day at the beach in some uncomfortably small swim trunks chatting it up with Dr. Mills and his lovely assistant Dr. Day. Steve and Day kiss once, and never really talk to each other again. Are they now a thing? I don’t know. It’s weird. Steve draws a picture of a star spangled costume, showing that he accepts his fate. And thus, a hero is born. Wow. What an inspiring origin!

Remember the sweet van? It’s back, this time, outfitted with a motorcycle launching mechanism. Dr. Mills and all the other secret science folks were busy while Steve was at the beach, I guess. You can’t really talk about Captain America without mentioning his shield, right? It’s absolutely iconic, and a huge part of the character. It would have been easy for the creators to skip the shield, but they don’t, and I appreciate that. Instead of being made of a vibranium-adamantium alloy, it’s clear bulletproof plastic of some sort. Eh, okay. It reminds me of the energy shield Cap wielded for a while back in the 90s. Dr. Mills shows Steve that the shield can be both a defensive tool as well as an offensive weapon. The doc gives the shield a heave, and it flies for a bit as depicted by some very sketchy special effects before Steve catches it. That’s the first, last, and ONLY time anyone ever throws the shield in the movie. THE DOCTOR GETS TO THROW IT, NOT CAP. I changed my mind again, Dr. Mills really is the best thing in the movie. My brain is hemorrhaging from confusion at this point.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.36.24Another cool feature of the shield is that it is the windshield for the bike. I will admit that this motorcycle is sweet. It’s red, white, and blue all over the place. There are jets to get the speed up when needed, and also a silent mode that eliminates all engine noise. Steve, being an accomplished motorcycle rider, takes his sweet new toy out for a spin. A very, very long spin. Handily, there are some ramps and stuff on this super secret government base for him to play on. I know Evel Knievel was the bee’s knees at this point in history, but all this motorcycle stuff is excessive. It’s Captain America, not Ghost Rider, for crying out loud! Lo and behold, a helicopter full of bad guys appears, and they chase Steve down. He uses a ramp and the jets on the bike to jump into the helicopter and dispatch the evil guys. I’m still not sure why they feel he’s such a threat to their plan, which we’ve learned by now is something about a bomb. Like I said before, it’s unclear.

We have now been watching this movie for an hour and ten minutes, and finally thing are starting to move along. Drs. Mills and Day, along with some super hearing assistance by Steve, figure out where the bad guys are. Mills drops a bombshell, telling everyone that people used to call Steve’s dad Captain America, teasing him, I suppose. Yes, a nickname used to BELITTLE HIS FATHER is taken as the son’s superhero call sign. (I can’t even.) Dr. Mills tells Steve to “shove Captain America down their throats” which makes everyone uncomfortable, and then, at long last, Steve dresses up in his superhero suit (based on the drawing he made earlier, a mashup of Evel Knievel and the classic costume). What does he do first? He drives off on an extended motorcycle scene, of course.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.37.58

Finally, FINALLY, we have Captain America taking on some bad guys in hand to hand combat. Or, you’d think we would have it, but he ends up sneaking around the oil refinery bad guy HQ more than anything. He can jump really high, you see, and even though he is clearly visible on the outdoor catwalks, no one notices him until it’s too late. One thing I nearly forgot that simply must be mentioned is the sound effect that accompanies every display of Cap’s superpowers. It’s the Six Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman noise, almost exactly. Come to think of it, this Cap’s origin has more in common with astronaut Steve Austin than it does the comics.

In a very odd sequence, Steve breaks an oil pipe and sprays it all over a patch of ground. The inept security guards run right into it, and we are treated to slipping sliding hijinks. Cap watches from afar, laughing at them. I can see it now: when the creators wrote this scene, they were like “hey, remember how at the beginning they tried to kill Steve by spraying oil on the road? What if he sprayed oil back on them at the end? Man, that would be far out, right? Like, a thematic tie or something.” And then they went out for lunch at a fancy restaurant because they are Hollywood Writers and they are Important Creative Talent. The whole scene comes off as a Three Stooges bit. It’s totally awkward and out of place.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.38.45

Wasn’t there something about a bomb? Yes, indeed there was. Turns out the bad guys are sending a bomb somewhere else, and Cap has to go stop them! You know what that means: more motorcycle scenes! After several grueling minutes, Cap catches up to the truck hauling the bomb. He leaps off his bike in order to climb aboard, and inexplicably leaves his shield behind! There’s no way a bulletproof shield would in any way be useful from this point on, why even bother with it, you know? Cap uses an exhaust pipe to literally smoke out the head bad guy in the trailer with the bomb. Dr. Mills shows up, I think they disarm the bomb, and all is well.

Steve decides that he will now carry on his father’s work even more closely, by using the exact same costume Pappa Rogers used during his bad guy fighting days. Yes, that’s right, apparently Steve’s dad actually dressed up in a costume while crime fighting, and no one ever said anything about it until three minutes before the end of the film. I don’t get it, either, but the whole costume thing does explain why they called daddy-o Captain America. We are treated to a final scene of Cap riding on his motorcycle in his new costume, which more closely resembles the comic book version. He and Dr. Mills have a brotastic handshaking moment, and the credits roll.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.39.12Wow. This movie is really something. They managed to strip away almost every important attribute of Captain America. The key theme of the super soldier serum bringing out the inner qualities of Steve Rogers is totally abandoned. This dude is buff already, plus a motorcycle ace and an ex-soldier before he ever uses F.L.A.G., and that ruins it. Unlike the “real” version, this Steve doesn’t believe in helping other people and doing the right thing, either. He doesn’t even choose to use F.L.A.G., remember? Even when, due to events outside his control, he gets super powers, he still protests. Captain America is a lot of things, but a reluctant hero is not one of them.

This Cap doesn’t feel particularly patriotic, either. You get the feeling that he regrets his time in military service since he just wants to wander around doing nothing. Even when he does don the costume, he doesn’t fight America’s military enemies, just corrupt business men. There are no Nazis or even Soviet threats here. A Cold War era Red Skull reimagining would have made sense and could have been cool, but no. The villains feel like something from The Incredible Hulk TV series, which I am sure was a large influence on this movie. I believe it was supposed to be a backdoor pilot for a Cap TV show, but the ratings weren’t there, and instead it spawned only a sequel TV movie.

If the creators hadn’t ignored what makes Captain America such a great hero, the movie would have been better. It could have inspired a decent TV show that was fondly remembered today. Instead, we got a bizarre mashup of the Bionic Man and Evel Knievel that doesn’t really work. Do I regret watching it? Not for a moment. It is perhaps the most 1979 thing you will ever come across, from the music to the fashion to the low budget. This Captain America movie isn’t good by any means, but the nostalgia factor and the excessive liberties (if you’ll excuse the pun) taken with the core character concept make it interesting. I’m curious as to how the sequel turned out, and when I watch it, I’ll be sure to share my thoughts here.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Clear Plastic Shields

 

May the Fourth Be With You!

8587210227baf220807be3fce9c13457In honor of Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be With You!), here’s an excerpt from my first book, I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool. Like most kids from the 80s, I was a huge Star Wars fan, and as an adult, I am no less excited about stories from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

“Dozens, if not hundreds, of Star Wars figures hung neatly from their pegs, taking up the top half of nearly an entire aisle. Below them, iconic vehicles from that galaxy far, far away lined the shelving. I looked through each peg of figures, flipping frantically from front to back, as high as I could reach. Han Solo in his blue Hoth gear caught my eye, as did a Snowtrooper. In my mind’s eye, the two squared off in a laser blaster duel in the cold, desolate wastes of that icy planet. A Tauntaun toy was on the bottom shelf. I was particularly enamored by this toy, representing one of the strange, hairy lizard-creatures used as a mount on frozen Hoth. It even had a spring-loaded hatch that you could place your Luke Skywalker figure in, just like in The Empire Strikes back, minus the horrible smell and the grey guts. I was thrilled to see so much plastic Star Wars goodness all in one place.”

Interested in reading more? You can pick up a copy of your own here.