The Best Things I Laid Eyes on in 2015

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So a few weeks before Christmas, I put out my “Best of” list for short stories, fully intending to do the same for books and movies and who knows what. Then…I didn’t. But, I don’t want to leave it all hanging out there, so I’m combining lists and putting out a “Best Things I Laid Eyes on in 2015” list. You’ll find movies, books, places, people and more. I tried to think of the entire past calendar year, but I know I missed a thing or two I loved. Forgive me. So…here’s my list:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

bb-8_14e2ad77I’ve seen the newest Star Wars film twice now and yet it seems like we’ve just shaken hands. I can’t even tell you how many times I saw IV, V, and VI as a kid. We had the movies on VHS and I watched them over and over and over. I loved them all and when Lucas re-released them in theatres with the latest effects, my dad made sure all of us kids were sitting in the seats.

Then the Prequels. Ugh. Like so many others I wanted to like them. Like so many others I was disappointed. I barely remember watching them and I know I’ve only seen Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith once each. And I know with the final movie I only saw it so I could say I did. There was no hype. No anticipation. No excitement.

Not so here. There are haters, but they can forget about trying to get me to hate it. It checked all the boxes for me and established new characters I care about. A re-tread? Hardly. Similar storybeats, but so was Harry Potter. So have been stories throughout the ages. I am an unabashed fan and I don’t care who knows.

Weapons of Mass Deception by David Bruns and J.R. Olson

weaponsmass_cvr_lrgBruns and Olson have a great book on their hands, I think. Reading this book brought be right back to the hours and hours I spent reading Tom Clancy’s books when I was in high school and college. Clancy had a knack for telling a complicated story with complex international political ramifications and making me care about it. With Weapons of Mass Deception, Bruns and Olson have done the same. The book is a tremendous achievement and I can only hope that the two coordinate their efforts again to give us more books like this down the road.

Jessica Jones / Daredevil

David-Tennant-Jessica-Jones-Poster-Doctor-Who-BrasilI’m lumping these two together. The first two Marvel properties developed for Netflix and both were daring (pun intended) and showed us a side of Marvel we didn’t know we would ever get on the screen. In Daredevil we got a great introduction to the dirty underbelly of New York and were made aware early on that anything goes. Daredevil showed us that in violence, but keeping with the theme of Murdock’s blindness, a lot was kept in the dark and at night. That violence was brought to light big time in Jessica Jones. I loved Jessica Jones. I think I liked it better than Daredevil and that is saying a lot. As a father of a pre-teen girl, I am worried about the world she’ll grow up in and the boys she may date. As a high school teacher, I see a lot of borderline abusive relationships as well. In Jessica Jones, we see those relationships personified in the villain Kilgrave. What a performance and in a way it’s a shame what the end result was for his character. I’m looking forward to what Marvel and Netflix will be cooking up for us in 2016.

Chicago Architectural Tour

BoatTour2_NatalieTaylorI went on a school trip to Chicago early in the summer and one of the things we did was this. If you ever get the chance, it is a great trip up and down the Chicago River with historical context for nearly every one of the buildings along the shore. There is a lot of new building going on and the new Trump Tower gets its fair share of criticism, but I daresay that is part of what has spurred the new developments along the route. The day we went ended up being a lot colder than we anticipated, but I still wound up fascinated by what I saw and heard along the tour.

Constitution/Warrior by Nick Webb

warriorThese books were great. So great that when I was buying Christmas gifts, I bought them in paperback for my dad. He’s hard to shop for, but he’s a military space sci-fi nut, so I knew I was safe with these books. I enjoyed Constitution, but I wasn’t sure what Webb would give us in the follow up. Wow. He really set up a complex and interesting backstory for each side in the conflict (and there are many more than two) and set up a potentially explosive third book in this series. If you like action and intrigue in your science fiction, check out Nick Webb’s books.

Ant Man

The last movie I remember smiling about so much in the theatre before Star Wars was Ant Man. Such a great movie. Really impressed me with its humor and vibe. Just as Daredevil and Jessica Jones redefined Marvel for the TV audience, so did Ant Man for films after the success of Guardians of the Galaxy. I love the nods to Avengers and how it all fits in with the larger universe without feeling too small.

My Newest Book Cover

Coming Soon…. Check this out:

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The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott

I’d read the book by Andy Weir last year so I can’t credit that here, but the movie exceeded all my expectations. I have been burned too many times by books turned into terrible movies, and so when Scott managed to turn The Martian into not only a decent movie, but a GREAT movie, I was thrilled. Matt Damon did a fantastic job and I thought the changes made from book to film were slight and appropriate for the conversion to the movie theatre.

ALL the short stories

11160045_10207031928225789_1011873126454258904_oI read a lot of short stories in 2015. A LOT. I already did my Best of list for just short stories, so I’m not going to rehash them here, but if you like short fiction, you need to check out the Future Chronicles curated by Samuel Peralta. Some great works by a lot of amazing authors. (Myself included, Full Disclosure.)

My Family

Over the summer I had the opportunity to see a lot of family. My wife and I went on a joint vacation to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge with her parents. Unlike some, I do like my in-laws and we had a great kick-off to the summer and good stories for years to come.

We also had a family reunion for my family. My sister lives a couple states away and my older brother is over 2,000 miles away, so getting us all together is easier said than done. Fortunately it worked out and we all met at my parents’ home for a few days. Unfortunately, my 99-year-old grandmother passed away in North Dakota the same week, sending my parents off to handle that business. All of my siblings were able to make it for the funeral, but it did put a bit of a damper on the overall summer get-together. Regardless, it was a great time to see people I don’t typically get to see.

The Dark Man/The White Night by Desmond Doane

26105206A different kind of books than Webb’s offerings, but still just as compelling. If I was going to put out a Best Books of 2016 list, I really think The White Night would have held the top spot. Who is Desmond Doane? That’s the penname for Ernie Lindsey, an accomplished author on his own, but for these horror/supernatural books, he wanted a little edge he couldn’t provide as himself, so Desmond Doane was born. The first book is good, but the second…man, I couldn’t put it down. There was a moment – and you’ll get there too – when I read it and I had to send a message to Ernie cursing him out for what he did to me. I couldn’t wait to write up my review for it and I am strongly anticipating the third book in his Graveyard: Classified series in 2016.

Humbird Cheese, Toma, Wisconsin

humbird-cheese-mart-910750A must stop on our family trips to North Dakota. On our way up for the funeral, we had to stop here. If you love cheese, this is a great place with free samples of nearly all the varieties of cheese. Me? I love a good smoked cheddar and buffalo wing-flavored cheese curds.

Collider Movie Talk on YouTube

We ditched the Dish this year. After over 10 years with either Dish Network or DirecTV, we finally cut the cord so to speak. We rely on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu for most of our traditional TV viewing. However, I’ve come to expect one show each day – Collider Movie Talk on YouTube. Each day, John Campea leads a panel discussion show to discuss movie reviews, box office returns and general movie news. It isn’t dry – each of the hosts have their own unique brand of humor and their passion of movies and genre movies in particular is infectious. In addition to Movie Talk, they also produce weekly shows for comics (Heroes) and Star Wars (Jedi Council) as well as a plethora of TV show recap episodes. If you like entertainment news that isn’t just Kardashian this and Kanye that, check this out.

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2013 in Movies — Top 20 List

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The other day I did a “Best of” list for the books I’d read in 2013. That got me to thinking about the movies I watched in 2013. Since I didn’t write down what I watched, I had to find a release schedule for the past year and find the movies I saw. Turns out, I watched 16 movies in the theatre as well as four that were released in 2013 that I saw later on DVD or some premium channel. I will now rank these movies as to which I enjoyed the most to the least. My criteria for this follows this line of thought: Would I watch it again? If so, which would I watch first?

Another thing to remember as I begin. This is the year I told my daughter (she turned 9 in August) that I was not going to take her to “crappy” movies. Basically, if Daddy decided they looked stupid, we weren’t going. For the most part, that worked. There are a few regrettable choices, however.

Image1. PACIFIC RIM. Big, loud, and silly. Yes, yes, and yes. I loved it. It was the only movie on this list that I’ve seen twice and both times in the theatre. I’ve got a Pacific Rim movie poster hanging above my desk at school. I know it didn’t do well at the U.S. box office, but that means nothing to me. It was my favorite 2013 release, in spite of the lack of A-list stars.

2. FROZEN. I’m a sucker for Disney musicals. Frozen looked good before I went to the theatre a few weeks ago, but after seeing it, I knew it was GREAT. So great, I bought my daughter the soundtrack for her to play endlessly in her bedroom. Just like when I was young, I listened to the Lion King soundtrack over and over, she can now do the same to an equally good movie. Go see it if you haven’t already.

3. OBLIVION. Can you keep a secret? I’m a big Tom Cruise fan. Mission Impossible, Jerry McGuire, War of the Worlds. I love to see that man run. He is great at running. And yelling. And being near things when they blow up so he has to run and yell. You take that and put him into an ORIGINAL sci-fi movie, and you’ve got my second favorite movie of the year.

4. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. Alright. I know there are the haters. THE ORIGINAL TIMELINE! some will shout. I do love the original timeline stuff, but I gotta say, I loved J.J. Abrams’ second Star Trek movie as well. The lens flares do get a bit distracting and the whole “Khan” reveal got to be a bit tedious, but overall I thought it was a well done movie.

5. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Better than the first movie by far and I loved the first one quite a lot. It almost seems so ridiculous to have a sequel to movie where so many of the characters die and then they do it again! I thought it was really well done and am anxiously awaiting the Mockingjay movies (and yes, I liked Mockingjay and I know I’m in the minority).

Image6. CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2. Silly and not afraid to show it. The first one gets put on repeat by my daughter and this one will be a mainstay in the DVD player as well. All the food puns…she was quoting them before we even saw it and it was even better than I thought it would be. Would watch again in a heartbeat.

7. IRON MAN 3. This movie worked on many levels. The kid in the middle was fantastic and worked very well with Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark when it could have fallen flat on its face. What really put this movie over so many others was the final action sequence. Wow.

8. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY. My second animated movie on this list and ahead of a few others…one of which you might find a little shocking. I so-much loved Monsters, Inc. that perhaps my feelings towards that transferred to this movie, but as an adult, I loved the hints towards movies like Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and dozens of other “college” movies. I loved that they managed to get a prequel out of Sully and Mike and will definitely watch it again.

9. THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Peter Jackson should have stuck with the plan to make two movies. I could have understood that. But when my daughter turns to me halfway through this movie and says “This movie is long,” then I know it’s long and drawn-out. She doesn’t usually comment on movie lengths, but what saves this movie from being farther down the list is the barrel scene as the dwarves and Bilbo escaped the Mirkwood Elves. I am looking forward to the final Hobbit film, but there is a certain aspect of simply checking it off the list with these movies.

Image10. THOR: THE DARK WORLD. The second Marvel movie on this list and yet I will say it was a million times better than its predecessor. Thor is a tricky hero to capture on film because he is a “god,” but this movie was much better at making him relatable and showing his world as opposed to him as an outsider on Earth.

11. ENDER’S GAME. Finally. That was the reaction of so many after reading the book as adolescents and finally seeing the dream fulfilled this year of seeing Ender on screen. Asa Butterfield did as good as could be expected and I actually thought Harrison Ford did fine in his role. What I didn’t like was the lack of Peter and Valentine’s storyline on Earth as well as the Battle Room sequences sped up a little too much, but you’ve got to trim for a movie and that’s where they had to cut, I guess.

12. DESPICABLE ME 2. I know this will be a little unpopular, but I honestly enjoyed Cloudy 2 and Monsters U better than DM2. I thought the girls were a huge part of why the first part was so good and yet this one was all about those yellow minions. I think they are a little funny and cute, but not enough to base the whole movie and its marketing around. Just not as good as what it could have been.

13. MAN OF STEEL. This past summer, I probably would have put this higher on the list. I was so disappointed after the last Superman movie that this one had me feeling positive after leaving the theatre about the future of the franchise. I thought Supes did an outstanding job of destroying IHOP and other businesses in and around Smallville, but there were some serious flaws with the movie and I’m not so sure that adding Batman and Wonder Woman to the sequel is the way to go.

Image14. WARM BODIES. I didn’t see this in the theatre, but looking back I kind of wish I did. Great zombie movie with a twist. Not lighthearted like Zombieland, but a good turn on the genre anyway. If it is possible to have a zombie romance, Warm Bodies did it well.

15. THE CROODS. I waited to see this one for a while, but my daughter and I had some free time to kill one day and this was playing, so I caved. It wasn’t as bad as I feared. Nicolas Cage as the father certainly didn’t help in my opinion, but overall the movie was better than I expected from the previews.

16. A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD. Did this movie really come out this year? I saw it on DVD this summer — must’ve been a quick turn-around from theatrical to DVD release. I love Die Hard 1 and 2 (Yes, I know they are essentially the same movie) and the third is highly underrated. The 4th was okay, but this one was just disappointing. I love the John McCLane character, but I hated his son. A lot. The action was good, but I found myself checking my phone a lot, which was good that I was at home, instead of at the theatre.

17. PERCY JACKSON AND THE SEA OF MONSTERS. My daughter loves the Percy Jackson books, so I took her to see this. She liked it, but there were so many (I lost track how many) times during the movie that she leaned over and said, “that’s not what happens in the book.” I eventually had to remind her that sometimes the books are different than the movies even with the same name. For a movie directly named after a children’s book, they really did a poor job of trying to connect with the source material.

18. OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. I also saw this on DVD, but I kind of wish I hadn’t. I just really didn’t get into it. I like the Wizard of Oz, but some of the things they did in this movie didn’t really work for me.

19. THE LAST STAND. It’s a fun and stupid movie. I saw this a few weeks ago on TV and Arnie is about the only thing that saved it for me.

20. FREE BIRDS. This is the worst movie I watched that was released in 2013. This means one thing. I didn’t see Disney’s Planes. Again, my mantra to my daughter of not seeing stupid movies worked for Planes and Turbo, but we had some Daddy-daughter time in November and no kid-friendly movies, save for Free Birds. I saw it and I can now say I’ve seen an animated movie about time-traveling turkeys. Oy.

 

So….what does that mean? It means I didn’t see some (what I’ve heard are) great movies like Gravity or some really dumb ones like After Earth. Summer is also prime movie viewing time as I’m not teaching then with winter coming in second with a few weeks off for Christmas. Because of this, some movies simply get missed simply because I couldn’t get to the theatre when they were out.

Overall, I liked a lot of what I saw this year and only regret a few of the movies I saw. Hopefully my discernment will lead me down wise paths in the future as well.