Top Ten Podcasts

I’m relatively new to podcasts, but they’ve turned into a regular part of my daily routine. Here’s my current Top Ten, in order of how excited I am and likely to immediately listen to a new episode:

10) The Command Zone — I’m a gamer, and my favorite game is Magic: The Gathering. In particular, I prefer the Command variant. If that seems like a lot of inside baseball, it is. This is easily the geekiest thing on this list, and even then I don’t listen to every episode. But it does have one of the staples of the genre that I like: engaging hosts that have a fun chemistry. Jimmy Wong and Josh Lee Kwai are having fun, and I’m slowly learning some of their nerdy jargon.

9) The Nerdist — I get the impression this is one of the oldest podcasts out there, with Chris Hardwick pulling in a new celebrity every week for a long-form discussion of…whatever. Whether it’s Norm MacDonald talking about hanging out with Johnny Carson, or Jeremy Irons describing his seaside castle home in Ireland, or Anna Faris discussing the relative merits of pubic hair management, these are usually interesting and fun conversations. My main reason for skipping some is the time investment required. (They’re usually at least an hour long.)

8) How Did This Get Made? — Another oldie, this is somewhat in the mold of the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 shows, where three hosts (Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael) riff on some terrible movie. Some of the shows are studio-produced, others live. And they usually have a guest or two, but these three are really the core of the show. This is another podcast where the chemistry is important. I’d rate this one higher, but Scheer dilutes the brand by interspersing the movie takedowns with “prequel” episodes that are entirely filler.

7) Magic: The Gathering Drive to Work — This is old school podcasting. It’s one guy talking into a recorder while he drives to work. That’s pretty much it. However, Mark Rosewater is a long-time designer (and now head of that team) at Wizards of the Coast. He’s got fun (for the initiated) stories about the entire history of the long-running game, as well as some amazing insights into the more general concept of game design, a topic which fascinates me. Still, some of his more esoteric episodes (T-shirts? Really?) speak of a desire to generate content for content’s sake.

6) Revisionist History — Well known author Malcolm Gladwell is perfect for the podcast format. He’s got a soothing voice and a tendency to build his books around chapter long concepts which are strung together. Here, he takes a topic and does a deep dive for forty minutes or so. It doesn’t have the loosey-goosey structure of most of my other faves on this list. It feels more like an NPR radio show. But it doesn’t disappoint. Here’s hoping his first season isn’t his last.

5) Movie Fights — This is really just an audio version of what is primarily a YouTube series. I don’t have the time to sit in front of a screen to watch all of these super-geeky trips into the strange and bizarre world of internet film fandom, but listening is still fun. A rotating collection of “fighters” meet to argue over questions like “What is the worst Will Smith film?” or “Rogue One: Is it necessary?” Hidden behind the bombast is a strange sort of bromance between Dan Murrell (the reigning Movie Fights champion) and Andy Signore (the host and judge). It’s funny to me how very rarely they acknowledge the baked in nepotism that drives the show.

4) On the Media — Here’s another podcast that is repurposed from another medium. I was a fan of On the Media on public radio for years. When I realized I didn’t have to figure out when it was airing, I was so very pleased. There’s only a hint of interaction between the hosts, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield, but they are both interesting voices (both aurally and ideologically) to listen to as media grows and shifts in the digital age.

3) Movie B. S. with Bayer and Snider — There is no better friendship on the internet (that I’ve found) than these two movie reviewers. They are good at unpacking recent film releases and giving them grades. They’re better at delivering a portrait of two men who seem so very different, but mesh so well. I want to fly to Portland and buy them lunch.

2) The West Wing Weekly — The West Wing is my favorite non-speculative drama. I have watched it way too many times. This episode-by-episode breakdown is a fantastic way for me to revisit them again and pretend it’s not just a waste of my time. The hosts are a podcast veteran (Hrishikesh Hirway) and one of the stars of the TV show (Joshua Malina). Hrishi has the work ethic and the fanboy love of TWW. Josh brings the snark, and such delicious snark it is. This is one of the few podcasts that I sometimes (but not always) listen to the ads, as opposed to just flicking past them at 15 second intervals. I enjoy these guys playing off of each other that much. Throw in amazing guest appearances by actors and other crew from the show, and I plan to listen attentively to this podcast until they burn through seven seasons of this great show.

Notice that there isn’t a number one on my list. I’m in the market for one more podcast. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments below.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I’m a member of the generation for whom the original Star Wars films are foundational. They are what science fiction epic blockbusters are supposed to be. I’m also a guy who thinks Star Wars is a lot of fun, but the films aren’t going on any of my top ten lists. I also thought the first and third prequels were bad, and the second was pretty good. Also, The Force Awakens is my favorite Star Wars film, by a pretty dramatic margin.

roaswsRogue One is an odd bird, then. It’s not a “saga” film, and so it’s supposed to feel a little different. No opening crawl. No Williams score. And the Skywalker clan are reduced to cameos. I was okay with that. In fact, I kind of wish it was more different. But I’ll get to that.

First, the good. Good performances, particularly from Felicity Jones as Jyn, Diego Luna as Cassian, Ben Mendelsohn as Krennic and Alan Tudyk as K-2SO. (K-2SO is possibly my favorite droid now. Sorry, BB-8.) Everyone else is also fine, but not quite as amazing. Great effects. It’s the most beautiful Star Wars film, I think. Great story. I won’t delve into spoilers, but it does an admirable job of organically retconning more than one of the oddities of A New Hope. I liked seeing a ton of new planets. I loved seeing the darker side of the Rebellion. I even loved that one actor reprising his role from the prequels.

The problem is, I don’t know exactly. I mean, yeah, I got sick and tired of the references to A New Hope. Two or three would have been fine, but it was kind of overkill. Did we really need two digital recreations of actors? No, not really. (Only one of which was actually good, by the way.) And out of 8 Star Wars films, 6 of them specifically reference the Death Star. I know, the Death Star is critical to this film’s entire story, but that just underlines the sameness of the films.

But the main problem I had is that I just didn’t care very much. About anyone. Will Jyn be reunited with her father (Mads Mikkelsen)? Didn’t care. Will Cassian and Jyn come to terms? Whatever. Will the team manage to get the Death Star plans to the Rebellion? Well, yeah. They will. But how will they do it? However they’ll do it, I guess. I didn’t even much care about any character deaths. (I won’t spoil who dies.)

So, there’s certainly nothing to be embarrassed about in the film. It’s a fine addition to the franchise. But it just doesn’t connect with me on an emotional level.

Ghostbusters (2016)

gI have to admit that I’m the demo who thinks the original Ivan Reitman directed Ghostbusters is a perfect movie. But I also have to admit that I don’t have a reactionary view of remakes in general. Want to remake a film I love? Go ahead. Have fun. Maybe I’ll even like it. I’ll take a well-intentioned remake over a lazy sequel or prequel any day of the week.

The other thing I have to admit is that the fanboy backlash at remaking the film with women in the lead roles was so ugly (not to mention stupid and unnecessary) that I was more predisposed to like the film, just to spite the sexist buffoons.

All in all, the film is pretty good. The cast is (mostly) fantastic. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are the new ghostbusting team, with the dim-witted help of Chris Hemsworth. They all knock it out of the park. Neil Casey is a bit of a waste as the bad guy, and the cameos by actors from the original film are fine. (Bill Murray is the weakest, Annie Potts was the best.)

What does set the film apart are the effects. These ghosts are weird and scary and intriguing. There’s no attempt to try to explain why some of them look like people, and others look like dragons, and others look like parade balloons. You just go with it and enjoy the show.

Apart from the effects, every aspect of this film is inferior to the first, but not terrible by any means. I’m kind of sorry it didn’t do well enough for a sequel, because the tease in the after-credit scene definitely made me happy.

Suicide Squad

ssDid I like Man of Steel? Yes, I did. Did I like Batman V. Superman? No, I did not. So I had high hopes yet middling actual expectations for this new addition to the other comic book cinematic universe.

Mostly, this was an enjoyable ride. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has this crazy idea. In a world where Superman is “dead”, the government wants someone on their side who is more than just a normal soldier. They want people with special abilities. But, since Aquaman and Wonder Woman aren’t in this movie, they just grab up the folks they have in prison that fit the requirement, stick remote-controlled bombs in their heads, and make them into a team. I guess this idea made some kind of sense in the comics, but on screen, you just have to go with the flow, or else you’ll second-guess every second of the film.

So, who’ve we got? A guy who never misses a shot (Will Smith), a psychotic former psychologist (Margot Robbie), a gang-banger-turned-fire-demon (Jay Hernandez), a walking crocodile (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), an archaeologist possessed by the spirit of an ancient sorceress (Cara Delevigne), a dude who uses boomerangs (Jai Courtney) and another dude who is really good at tying knots…I think (Adam Beach).

Who else do we have? Their military dude minder (Joel Kinnaman) and his sidekick, a girl with a magic sword (Karen Fukuhara). Oh, and Harley’s old boyfriend, a guy called The Joker (Jared Leto).

Dang. Doesn’t it feel like introducing all the characters would take the whole film? It kind of does. The actual plot is somewhat thin. One of the team decides to try to end the world, and the rest of the team has to stop them. There’s friction and bonding and double-crosses.

It’s kind of funny (Robbie steals the show) and it’s kind of exciting. But it never really gels as an Avengers-style team up, nor really devolves into a Pulp Fiction-style crime adventure. I would have preferred one or the other.

On the whole, it’s kind of forgettable, but harmless entertainment.

Finding Dory

fdSo, I have a young daughter. If not, I would probably have skipped this one. The Pixar films just exhaust me now. [Insert Cars joke here.] I did see, and mildly enjoy, Finding Nemo. I have to admit that the premise of this one is one of the better sequel ideas ever. Take a character with zero backstory (obviously, because she has memory problems) and use the sequel to dig into that history.

The flashbacks to Baby Dory as her loving parents attempt to build a life for their memory-challenged daughter are the very definition of cuteness, with just a pinch of heartbreak. It’s impossible not to care about Dory’s quest to find them after a freak accident triggers a key memory.

Following a completely pointless action sequence wherein Dory, Nemo and Marlin escape a giant squid, we arrive at The Jewel of Morrow Bay, California, a marine life institute where Dory was born. More characters are introduced: a wily octopus, a sweet whale shark, an insecure beluga whale. As all Pixar films must do, the obstacles thrown into the hero’s path are insurmountable…until they’re not. The protagonists hurt each others’ feelings…until they apologize. And the finale is big and exciting and over-the-top.

It’s hard to argue against the merits of the highest grossing animated film of all time. (It’s raked in over a billion dollars worldwide.) But I found the story strangely convenient. Many of the characters were sheer window dressing. (I’m looking at you, Nemo.) But it’s a touching tale about family lost and regained, and in that way, I still kind of like it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

fbawtftI’m enough of a Potterhead that I was already into this film before I saw a frame of footage. I mean, I don’t dress up with a Ravenclaw scarf when I go to the movies or anything, but I read all the books and watched all the movies. So I was already excited. Excited to see what the magical world is like on this side of the pond. To see a period version of it (the 1920s). But I was mostly excited by something that the marketing simply didn’t address.

As a Potterhead, I know that history tells us of a battle in 1945 between Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald in Europe. As soon as I read that, I wanted to see a prequel film depicting that battle, happening in the heart of Germany (hopefully) during the final days of World War II. Yes, that’s my fondest wish. To see a Potterverse version of a magical WWII.

So, that’s not in this film, just so you know. But the first moments of Fantastic Beasts introduce the audience to the name Gellert Grindelwald, and I got actual tingles. Tingles!

This film, on the other hand, is about Newt Scamander, a magical zoologist who is trying, in difficult times for such things, to help preserve and protect magical creatures around the world. It’s a clever construction to put this environmental story into both a fantasy context, and in the past. If this were happening in the here and now, it would feel preachy. In the past, I can understand why most people are poo-pooing Newt’s goals.

Of course, he doesn’t endear himself to MAGUSA (a terrible acronym if I ever heard one) when his suitcase-of-holding lets several creatures loose on the streets of Manhattan. By turns his antagonist and his ally is Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an agent of MAGUSA who wants to be by the book, in a Hermione kind of way. Pulled along for the ride are Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) who’s sort of Luna-ish, and a No-Maj (another terrible term) named Jacob (Dan Fogler) who is the Ron-ish comedy relief.

There’s also a collection of bad guys played by Samantha Morton and Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller who serve their purposes, and often drive the story, but aren’t really the heart the movie.

The heart of the movie is the foursome of Tina, Queenie, Jacob, and our central character of Newt. Played by Eddie Redmayne, Newt is perhaps the least charismatic lead character of a blockbuster film I’ve ever seen. He’s twitchy and shy. But he’s also awesome. I loved his performance because he seems so in tune with the animals he cares for that he’s sort of forgotten how to really interact with people. The most moving scene for me is when he pulls Jacob into his case and introduces him to these animals. This is where Newt is in his element. Gone is the whispery voice and the poor posture. This is where the character lives and breathes.

I loved the first series of films, but I don’t need this to be that. I like the fact that these are adults, that the story structure is a little looser, that I don’t just know where everything is going. If they want to make five of these movies, more power to them. I’ll be there, even if I don’t have that Ravenclaw scarf.

Arrival

aFirst off, I want to say that I did like this movie. It’s got a tight story, stunning cinematography and trippy sci-fi concepts. And I cried. Boy, that ending did it for me.

But, still, I’m kind of amazed at how much Arrival references other films.

For example, our hero, Louise (Amy Adams) is a scientist who is well respected in a narrow field of study, who is not in a relationship, and who has unresolved issues about a dead family member. All of these things could be said about Jodie Foster’s character in Contact, or Jennifer Connelly’s character in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Then when you add a sometimes helpful, sometimes antagonistic male character for her to play off of, the similarities increase. After the aliens make contact in the enigmatic way they do in these kinds of films, Adams is whisked away from her simple, boring life into a whirlwind of scientific activity, with pressure from all sides to MAKE CONTACT.

The aliens’ ships are simple, featureless crafts that simply hover above the ground in locations around the globe. (Independence Day, anyone?) Once every 18 hours, the ship in Montana opens up and our intrepid band can use some crazy artificial gravity to walk up to a conversation room. (This stuff felt a lot like the space scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Unlike TDTESS, wherein the alien just knows English, or Contact, where they’re simply dealing with a transmission, Louise is in a room with (freaky looking) aliens on the other side of the glass. (Reminiscent of the finale of The Abyss.) Half the movie is her efforts to understand their language–and get them to understand English–to the point where she can ask the simplest of questions: “Why are you here?”

I won’t spoil the answer to that question. Astonishingly, it was an idea I’d never run across.

With some great supporting performances by Jeremy Renner, Forrest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma (Tzi Ma!) this is definitely a film worth spending some time with.