FORTNITE – Game Review

FORTNITE – Game Review

At the beginning of this year I received an ominous text message from my friend and former housemate Pastor Keith Doyle over in Ohio. I’m bringing this up first and foremost to underscore the fact that what happened after said text message can be directly traced back to him – which should absolve me of at least some of the guilt I now harbor within my soul for falling victim to the current scourge of humanity: the video game known as FORTNITE Battle Royale.

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~~Actual text message from Keith~~

If you’ve never heard of Fortnite, then I humbly suggest that you now fall to your knees and praise the Lord God Almighty for delivering you out of the hands of the devil – you are truly blessed. And may I go so far as to add that you might be wise to stop reading now lest you wish to flirt with the danger inherently encapsulated within the knowledge I’m about to share here.

If you’re unfamiliar with my writing or sense of humor, rest assured, I’m only half joking, and this really isn’t as serious as all that. In truth, I just felt like writing about this because it seems to be coming up more often in conversations as of late. I’ve been hearing more and more about peoples’ kids or grandkids playing Fortnite and I’ve seen friends who are my age posting on Facebook about their kids’ obsession with Fortnite. I also have friends who are teachers that have mentioned the kids in their classes talking about it. It is not unusual for me to hear people around my age or older puzzled, flabbergasted, or generally surmising with grimaced faces over various phenomena that the youngsters are into these days… this is, after all, part of life as they say… what is unusual, is that, having delved into the uttermost depths of one such phenomena for nearly a year, I now find myself in a unique position to educate my fellow Adulticans on this topic. And more importantly, this is all I can now do to hopefully give some meaning to the countless, nay, unholy, amount of late night hours I have spent “researching” this subject. And by research I’m referring to the knowledge and experience I’ve been able to successfully mine before stumbling into bed at midnight (on numerous occasions) after an hour or two of a video game session that mostly consisted of me failing miserably while being cussed out by 6 year olds and having my manhood called into question by 12 year olds.

When I started playing Fortnite it was just another video game, but it has since become something much larger. The last time something this huge happened in the video game industry was in 1985 with the North American release of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Obviously, many technological advancements have occurred since then, but the explosion of Fortnite popularity across the entire globe in such a relatively short amount of time has nothing to do with technological advancement – the game’s graphics actually take a few steps backward (in the example of Minecraft) and look very cartoonish rather than following the traditional trajectory of attempting to make games look as realistic as possible. What has made this game so popular to millions, across so many countries, isn’t a massive advancement in graphics or microchip speed technology, but rather a tremendous breakthrough in the psychological dimension of video games.

Now, I just want to say before going any further, that I’ve grown up with video games – they’ve been there in the background of my existence ever since I saw my parents playing Space Invaders on the Atari 2600 when I was four. I grew up watching games continually develop and progress into more mesmerizing and complex forms with each passing year. I remember politicians in the early 90s arguing over the effects of video game violence and imposing a rating system. I remember preachers on TV railing against them as abominations of a society that had lost its collective moral anchors. I’ve heard all the rhetoric. So, the last thing I want to do is call a video game evil, or tell parents that they shouldn’t let their kids play it. What I do want to do, on the other hand, is offer some insight into how this particular video game has changed the industry as a whole, and comment on why I think it’s important that parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles know why.

I need to start by backing up just a bit…

Over the last 10 years or so the video game industry has been slowly becoming something that is increasingly non-tactile and more digital. Actually, the transformation is pretty much complete for the most part. Digital gaming, if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, means you don’t have to actually own a physical copy of a game in order to play it. The same thing has been happening with movies and books as well over the past decade. You can download and watch a movie or read a book (after paying a full or sometimes discounted price) without ever touching anything but a keyboard, mouse, screen, or controller. In regards to gaming, this mainly started with the mobile app games that you can download on your smartphones. Most of these games are free or only cost a buck or two to download. The people who created and own these games don’t make much money from the initial act of you “getting” the game. They make money off allowing you to buy additional items, abilities, characters, and new levels inside the games themselves. So back in the day, you went to Wal-Mart with $50 after selling all your He-Men in Mom’s garage sale and bought one Nintendo game that you could own for the rest of your life. Nowadays, you get the game for free, but if you want to use the sword of Conan the Barbarian to defeat the Zombies on Planet Mordor, instead of using Grandma’s old broken shotgun that everyone can use for free, you “buy” the sword inside the game with REAL MONEY and then you “own” it digitally.

World of Warcraft pioneered this idea many years ago, but at that time you still had to buy a physical copy of the game as well. This is the type of game that Fortnite is, and even though it’s not the first game to do this, it is by far the most successful at it. Owning Fortnite is free, it is available on every major gaming console, mobile device, and PC. All you have to do is download it, and you can play the same exact game that everyone else is playing. You never have to spend a single dime to do this. This is very important for parents to understand, so I’ll say it again: Your kid can play the same game that every other person in the world is playing, without any disadvantage to gameplay, and with the same abilities and skills required of every other player.

If this is the case, how did the creators of Fortnite gross $318 million in the month of May alone?

The answer: V-Bucks. V-Bucks (virtual bucks) are the currency used within the game, and you can earn miniscule amounts of this “money” by completing certain tasks in the game. But in order to get enough virtual bucks to actually buy anything significant, you have to spend REAL bucks. I’m no mathematician by any stretch of the imagination, so I’ll make this simple – 1,000 V-Bucks costs $9.99 USD. So, let’s say your kid, or grandkid, niece or nephew, talks you into entering your credit card number into the game and getting them some V-Bucks to spend… no big deal. They can then use the virtual currency to make their character have different outfits, costumes, masks, backpacks, etc. It doesn’t give them any advantage in the game – they just get to choose how they want their character to look. They call these various aesthetic choices “Skins.” These Skins cost different amounts, and there are several ways to get them, but they all cost money. The most desired Skins are typically around 2,000 V-Bucks, which is $20 dollars. Terms such as common, uncommon, rare, epic, and legendary are used to denote how much a skin is worth.

But the real genius of the Fortnite creators (Epic Games) is that they consistently update the game, and the amount of Skins available on a weekly basis, with major updates occurring every few months. They call these major changes to the game “Seasons.” When I began playing Fortnite at the beginning of this year it was in Season 2, and now it is in Season 6 already, with Season 7 scheduled for the Holidays. What this means from a business perspective is that there is an increasingly endless amount of “digital products” available to buy.

In simple terms, it’s like buying the same FREE video game over and over again – you don’t have to buy it at all – but if you want to be cool, you’ll buy it as many times as you can. I personally don’t pay for it, but this is the way that the game inherently teaches kids to think, and subsequently bug the hell out of their parents.

There’s nothing too terribly shady going on here – it’s not hidden, and it’s not tricking anyone. Most kids are smart enough to understand it. In fact, one of the reasons I’m writing this review is that most kids probably understand it way better than most adults.

Just in case you’re having trouble, allow me to explain it like this: Let’s say you walk into a fast food joint, walk up to the counter, and they give you a cheeseburger, large fries, and a large coke – for free. Everyone else in the place has the same exact thing. No one can ever get anything different, no one can ever get more than ayone else, no one can ever get less… HOWEVER, if you choose, you can pay $20 to have the same exact cheeseburger wrapped in a different color paper, the same exact number of fries put into a different color of fry box, and the same large coke poured into a different color cup with a fancy design on it. You might be reading this thinking, hmmm… that can’t be right, or hmmm… that sounds ridiculous, or hmmm… who would pay $20 for the same food to be put in different colored containers, that’ll never work. Well, it’s true. It’s happening. This is the Fortnite business model. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent every month so video game characters can be dressed in new outfits.

Never before in the history of humanity have people been able to make so much money from selling thin air in such an honest manner, without tricking or deceiving anyone. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions yet, but my own opinion is that this is a psychological phenomenon we’re witnessing on a scale that’s never been seen – and it indicates a significant, collectively driven departure from reality.  I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all to be honest. I just see what’s happening.

With all that said, I’ll make a few comments on the actual gameplay itself. There’s not much to it actually – you drop onto an island with 99 other players (you can play a solo game where it’s everyone for themselves, or you can play as part of a two-person or four-person team), and then you just run around really fast, build things and shoot people… and dance. You win the game by being the last person (or team) alive at the end. The island itself is extremely large, but the playable area slowly shrinks down which forces all the players into a smaller and smaller area – this makes a typical game last around 15-20 minutes. If you get killed in the game, you’re done. You have to go back into the “game lobby” and then queue up a completely new match to try again. The sudden death aspect of the game provides a pretty significant adrenaline rush. I noticed it the first time I played it. The brain sensation feels a lot like gambling (I don’t gamble, but I’ve visited a few casinos before, and I’ve played my fair share of Texas hold ‘em in the past). You definitely get some kind of dopamine spike from playing the game, and encountering other players that are trying to kill you. Take that for what you will. My own personal opinion on this matter is that it has the effect of making the game highly addictive in the same way that gambling can be addictive. And I should mention as well that you are always playing against real people. There are no computer players in this game. Behind every “Skin” is an actual human being sitting in front of a TV screen, computer monitor, or smartphone – some of them with tiny black dogs named Jazz looking at them like they are insane.

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Jazz would rather talk Lord of the Rings…

When I play Fortnite, I typically play as part of a random team. This means that I don’t typically know the people who are on my team from one game to the next. My friend Keith abandoned the game many months ago… a much wiser man than I. But I do have a headset which allows me to talk to other players, and I’ve met people playing the game from all over the place. There’s plenty of older people, and lots of college students, but most of them have been younger kids. My most memorable experience along these lines was the day I was thrown onto a team with three very young British lads. The youngest one sounded like he was four or five. Their leader was probably closer to 9 or 10 and he greatly enjoyed calling me a “bloody yank” and bossing me around and shouting military commands at me like he was Winston Churchill. At any rate, I just mention this so that parents out there are aware of the fact that your kids could be interacting with absolutely anyone. That’s just something to keep in mind.

Fortnite definitely has its own language as well, and I’ve defined a few of the terms already, but I’ll provide a list below of the ones that I think will be most helpful for people to know. Aside from that, I’ll just re-iterate that this Fortnite craze is pretty significant for younger generations. In my estimation, we haven’t yet seen its full magnitude, and the ability to buy additional merchandise like toys and clothes is only just beginning. But make no mistake, for kids these days, this is every bit as crazy as the Summer of 1977 when Star Wars first landed on planet Earth. Fads come and go more quickly these days I think, but this one’s a juggernaut – it’s breaking through all cultural and socio-economic barriers, and kids and young adults are flocking to it by the millions. Fortnite has everything from professional players that compete in high stakes tournaments, to people broadcasting live video of their games, to entire YouTube channels devoted to commentary on gameplay. There are parents that even hire coaches to teach their kids how to play and win. Last month the top Fortnite player in the world – Tyler Blevins a.k.a. Ninja – was the first video gamer to ever be featured on the cover of ESPN Magazine.

I hope this helps any adults out there who feel left in the dust. At the end of the day, it’s only a video game—and this too shall pass.

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FORTNITE Glossary:

Seasons = Term used to define major changes to the game and game map that occur about every two to three months.

Battle Pass = This is a purchasable reward system that allows players to unlock various skins and other items by completing certain tasks within the game. It typically costs about $10 and expires at the end of every season. Which means you have to buy it again at the start of a new season.

V-Bucks = Virtual Bucks. You pay $9.99 USD in real world currency for a thousand of them.

Skins = Term used for the clothing and general way a player’s in-game character looks. Most of the money that is spent on Fortnite is spent on skins. Kids collect skins the way us older people once collected trading cards.

Default Skins = Skins that are free and used by anyone who refuses to pay actual money to play Fortnite.

Streamers = These are people who connect their gaming monitors or consoles to internet sites (like YouTube or Twitch) so people can watch them play. This allows them to generate revenue based on the number of people watching them. Streamers with massive numbers of viewers can make millions of dollars from allowing advertisers to monetize their channels.

Noobs = This term is not confined to the Fortnite community, but it refers to people who are just beginning to play the game and have no idea what’s going on. It is typically used by many young Fortnite gamers as a derogatory term accompanied by some kind of expletive. Sometimes used in conjunction with the term “Default Skin” to bolster the intended insult.

Squeakers = Refers to very young males that play Fortnite while constantly talking and bragging about their accomplishments, singing rap songs, and generally trying to annoy anyone else that can hear them. When I get put into a game with one or more Squeakers I just back out of the match and restart into a different lobby. They do not understand things like logic, reason, or common courtesy, there are legions of them, and they will be running the country one day. Lord, have mercy on us.

Pros = Typically refers to people who make money by playing Fortnite, but most younger gamers use the term for anyone who has a discontinued Skin from an early Season that they will never be able to own.

GG = Means “Good Game,” and is a common way to bid a fond farewell to teammates when the game is over.

Harry Pottering = This is a term used in-game (usually with accompanying expletive) to inform your teammates that you have accidently trapped yourself underneath a ramp which is vaguely reminiscent of the way Harry Potter was forced to live underneath the Dursley’s staircase.

1v1 = One player versus one other player, when no one else is around, or no one else is left alive, and the entire game is on the line.

Mats = Materials. Refers to material resources in the form of Wood, Brick, or Metal that are collected from the gaming environment and used to build things.

Loot = This is a blanket term used to refer to guns, ammo, materials, armor, bandages, med kits, and other items that must be scavenged from the gaming environment, discovered in hidden treasure chests, or taken from fallen players. When a player dies in the game, all their “loot” is dropped onto the ground for other players to collect.

 

Predator

Predator

Well, in an effort to make my movie reviews somewhat relevant to current box office trends (not that I’m overly concerned with this) I’ve decided to jot down some reflections on an old childhood favorite that has continued to inspire periodic sequels from time to time – the most recent of which was just released into theaters this weekend.

Full disclosure: I did rewatch the original Predator a few weeks ago, mostly because I was just in the mood – and maybe also because Arnold was 39 when he filmed it, and I’m 39 now… and I needed the abstract motivation of watching a 39 year-old man at the top of his game.

At any rate, this is one of those movies that’s heavily steeped in nostalgia for me personally – and probably a lot of other dudes who saw it as a kid. And listen, I’m not sexist at all, but this is definitely a dude film. It’s unashamedly packed with bros, huge bicep close ups, magnificent explosions, guns that almost never seem to run out of ammo, blood, guts, cigars, Jesse Ventura, and profuse sweating — all elegantly wrapped in a fine veneer of exaggerated grunts, yells, and other various ape sounds. What can I say? It’s a product of its time, it’s pure 80s Schwarzenegger, and you can literally smell the testosterone on the DVD cover.

I have very vivid childhood memories surrounding this movie. But lest you gasp with inward incredulousness, don’t worry — my dad wouldn’t let me watch Predator until it came out on TV – edited of course. And he had actually provided a second layer of censorship by recording it from the TV onto a blank VHS tape so he could edit out the parts that were too gory for me. I was utterly dismayed by this due to the fact that Dad took my older brother Chad to see it when it first came out in 1987. I had never waited so long to see a movie that had been out for three years. And I made up for it by binge re-watching that VHS tape until it fell apart, disintegrated into tiny pieces of plastic, and was absorbed by the earth. It captured my imagination so completely that I would go into the woods near our house with my squirt guns and pretend I was one of the commandos in the movie. But don’t worry, I finally quit doing that a couple of years ago. Everyone has to grow up eventually.

It’s interesting to watch this movie now, and to think about it on the level of analysis. I really wasn’t watching it this time around with the expectation that it held anything deeper in its story, but it actually does, and I was surprised by this fact.

On the surface Predator is exactly what you’d expect it to be – a typical 80s action film. It’s about an elite special forces unit traipsing through the deep central American rainforest in search of political hostages. They’re led by Schwarzenegger and Apollo Creed – old friends who find themselves at odds over the ethical dilemmas of combat. Schwarzenegger’s character, named Dutch (probably a subtle nod to his accent which was still thickly European at the time) is struggling with his identity throughout the film. He is, essentially, the perfect hunter leading a group of other hunters in an effort to find and extinguish the lives of his enemies. We know from carefully placed exposition that he’s been doing this for a long time, and that, along the way, he’s developed a sense of righteous justification to provide a moral anchor for what he does. Dillon (Carl Weathers) gives personification to Dutch’s conscience, reminding him that his self-righteousness is only a flimsy illusion, and that underneath it all, he’s nothing more than a professional killer.

The backbone of the plot involves Dutch being slowly and methodically stripped of his illusions and forced to embrace his true identity completely. In this regard, the alien monster who hunts and destroys all the other men is only a mirror reflection of Schwarzenegger’s character. The Predator is doing the same thing that Dutch and his men are doing – only for different reasons, and with greater ability. We see this theme most clearly displayed near the end when Dutch asks the creature what he is – and the creature only responds with the same question. They’re both the same thing.

Now, I’m sure there’s probably some deep psychological meaning to all this, and it’s probably ripe with Jungian archetypal imagery and what not… but what I take away from it is the idea that all of us have a dark side, we all have a monster on the inside – it’s something we usually hide and cover up with layers upon layers of protection and armor. But if we are willing to be honest about it, calling it what it is – then we’ve taken the first step toward confronting it. And confronting monsters is what heroes do.

I think that’s what the movie is saying. I could be wrong, but I’m going to go with this interpretation… because it’s my movie review.

And remember folks, if all else fails, just take Arnold’s advice and, “get to da choppah!”

12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men

This film review is brought to you by the number twelve.

A very long time ago, before I was born, and probably before you were born too… someone decided that twelve was the number of roses it takes for a man to show a woman how much he really loves her—or to get out of the doghouse—whichever the case may be.

And a very long time before that, someone decided that Christmas should consist of twelve days. They wrote a song about that, but I’m not sure why because I’ve never seen a twelve day-long Christmas in my life.

But way back, even before that, someone decided that clocks should measure the progression of twelve hour intervals. The plot thickens…

And still further back than that, someone decided that a year should consist of twelve months.

Now, since we’re talking about the number twelve, and because Bible nerding is what I do for a living, it would be remiss of me if I failed to mention that twelve is a very important number in the Bible. In about the middle of Genesis, for instance, God decides that a man named Jacob should have twelve sons, and that their descendants should be divided into twelve tribes. And much later on, a guy named Jesus who was descended from one of those twelve tribes came along, and he picked twelve men to begin the process of changing the entire world. And eventually, at the end of the Bible, you can read about the Heavenly City with its twelve foundations of precious stones, twelve gates going in and out, and twelve angels guarding the gates. The Bible doesn’t joke around with the number twelve.

And, of course, we also have a dozen eggs, a dozen donuts, a dime a dozen, the dirty dozen, and six and one half dozen of the other (which by my calculations is still twelve… I think.)

However! Somewhere back in the depths of history, in the middle of all this twelve business, some king in medieval England began using something called a jury, at times consisting of twelve men, to decide whether or not a person was guilty of a crime. He wasn’t the first person to have this idea, which according to some sources finds its origins in ancient Greece. But whatever its true beginnings may be, the idea caught on, and it was eventually adopted into English law, and from there it was passed on to the legal system in America. And then in 1957 Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet made a movie about it called 12 Angry Men.

I’ve known about this film for many years, but this was my first time to watch the enduring classic that keeps resurfacing into contemporary culture from time to time—a testament to the ageless nature of what it explores and displays in regards to human nature. And despite my opening reflections on the number twelve, this movie has little to do with the number of “angry men” in the picture, and more specifically about what these men are doing, and what is making them angry. If I could boil it down to the simplest of terms—they’re trying to make a decision. They’re trying to decide if the 18-year-old kid on trial really did stab his father to death. If he did, he will most certainly be given the death penalty. And for an added layer of tension, the kid in question is from an un-specified (non-white) ethnicity, and he hails from a likewise un-named slum in New York City. In 1957 America, this kid is the lowest of the low.

A preliminary vote by the jury members results in 11 guilty votes and only one for not-guilty. And herein lies the drama. It takes a unanimous 12 votes to convict or acquit, so this one guy (played masterfully by Henry Fonda) is the only thing keeping the other 11 guys from quickly escaping the confines of the sweltering back room in the courthouse—and speedily condemning a young man to the execution that would follow. On this basis alone, Henry Fonda appeals to the rest of them saying, “It’s not easy to raise my hand, and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.

And so they talk. If you want to find out where they end up after the lengthy, heated, discussion that follows—go watch the film.

There are several different themes orbiting around the central discussion taking place in 12 Angry Men, including leadership, conformity, group dynamics, racism, class inequality, and personal prejudice. Each of these themes is personified by at least one or two of the jurors, but my favorite of these themes is the leadership exemplified in Fonda’s Juror Number 8, as he stands alone against the rest of the group, humbly beseeching them to carefully consider the gravity of their decision, and exhorting them to engage in honest dialogue with each other. Throughout the course of the film he takes the most punishment from the rest of the group, and still remains steadfast in his conviction despite their incessant criticism.

And it’s this theme of leadership that has continued to resonate in my thoughts over the last few weeks, as I’ve pondered the real meaning of a movie like this—not only what it meant when it was made some 62 years ago, but what it means today.

What is real leadership? Does this movie show us an example of what real leadership looks like?

Yes, I believe it does.

First off, real leadership seeks to reconcile opposing groups of people (if possible), rather than push them further apart. Henry Fonda, though standing alone against the rest of the group, never says or does anything to intentionally insult them. His goal is reconciliation between their decision and his, and he knows that this cannot be accomplished by alienating them. There are moments when he speaks sternly to them, and moments when he risks pushing them too far, but he does this only to keep them focused on the problem at hand. Bad leaders don’t know how to reconcile opposing groups or opinions. Bad leaders only know how to create more dissonance, confusion, and fracturing among people. The problem that these men in the movie are attempting to solve will not go away unless they can come together in some kind of agreement, one way or the other. Keeping them at the table, keeping them talking, encouraging them to dig down and really think together—this is the main task that Fonda’s character engages in from the beginning—and it makes him a good leader.

Second, real leadership is humble and kind. Fonda’s character never assumes a position of dominance over the other men. He doesn’t try to be the leader. But we the audience (like the other characters in the movie) recognize him as the leader by what he does, and how he does it. He meets arrogance with kindness, he counters emotional outbursts with the calm delineation of salient details, and he arrests pre-judgment with simple rationalism. His goal is not to make the other men agree with him, or force them into a decision they’re not comfortable with—his goal is to examine the issue as thoroughly as possible, and come to the best possible conclusion—together.

Third, and I’ll close with this point—real leadership doesn’t lie. The entire purpose of Fonda’s character engaging in an opposing dialogue with the rest of the men in the group is to find the truth. Moreover, he admits to them near the beginning of their discussion that he simply “doesn’t know” whether the kid is guilty or not, and that this is why they need to talk about it further—so they can be sure of what the truth actually is. We can see the doubt in his eyes at times, and we can see that he isn’t completely confident about his position, but he never tries to hide this from the other men. He doesn’t create a false persona of exuberance, or phony confidence to convince them that he’s right and they’re wrong. Bad leaders don’t care about this. Bad leaders just want to please the majority so they can go on being the boss.

As I said earlier, there are many other themes floating through the narrative of 12 Angry Men, not the least of which is how easy it is to make conclusions about anything without actually thinking. It’s much easier, for all of us, to formulate conclusions based on our emotions, or based on our past experiences, or to simply go along with whatever the closest crowd to us is doing… it’s much more difficult, on the other hand, to apply focused reasoning and critical thinking to our collective issues and problems. It takes time, it takes energy, and it takes a willingness to be ok with the fact that we could, possibly, be wrong. And it’s always difficult to do this with people who think differently, and who easily draw conclusions that are completely opposite to our own. But that’s how problems actually get solved.

We might all be able to learn a thing or two from this old movie.

The Road

The Road

~~Originally posted on September 23, 2017~~

Last weekend our Summer Movie Nights came to an end with Jordan Brower drafting The Road into our lineup as the grand finale. Of the 10 movies we watched, five of them centered around road trips or journeys of some kind, including The Road of course. This was my second time seeing this film. The first time I saw it was in Ohio around the time it was first released in 2009. I wasn’t sure what to make of it then, but the last eight years have given me some perspective – in particular, in the area of grasping onto whatever hope is available when circumstances seem to offer nothing but hopelessness. And this is what The Road is about. It’s a really simple story about a father and son traveling south through a post-apocalyptic America that is very very gray. It’s like, a million shades of gray. Sorry, bad joke. But seriously, the colors gray and brown should have gotten Oscar nods for their supporting roles. Even though the setting is post-apocalyptic/dystopian, this is not a science fiction story. We’re never given an explanation as to how the world went dark – we just know that the lights went out and never came back on. The Boy was born shortly after the apocalypse began, and he appears to be around 9 or 10 years old, so the characters are very accustomed to this world. Those who have survived have adapted to it, mostly in very horrible ways. The Man, played by Aragorn, is on a mission to protect “the fire,” which burns very brightly through the innocence, goodness, and kindness of his son, but which is slowly burning out in his own heart. Through a series of vignettes and encounters with other people along the journey (including a house full of cannibals, a group of red neck marauders, and a lovable and lonely Robert Duvall), we see the push and pull that occurs between the father and son as they struggle to survive and keep moving. The Boy has such a pure heart that he doesn’t understand the concept of evil, and isn’t instinctively aware of the danger that exists all around him. The father knows this, and he struggles to keep his son’s innocence intact as much as possible, while still preparing him to face the world without him when he’s gone. It’s a very grim notion to ponder – how far can we go in the protection of innocence before our actions bring about the corruption we’re seeking to avoid? If you really think about it, it’s not a simple question to answer. And even though the plot of The Road is simple, as I said, it still manages to produce these very complex moral questions. In other words, it really makes you think. And for all its grayness, hopelessness, and general mood of depression, there does exist, under all the layers of dirt and grime, a small ray of light – the hope that the boy carries and embodies. We see it in the way he enjoys a Coca-cola for the first time, in the way he pleads with his dad to share their food with a stranger, in the desire to show mercy to a thief, and in the way he heartbrokenly asks the question, “Are we still the good guys?” That’s a question we should all pause and ask ourselves from time to time. Thankfully, this movie doesn’t leave us without that bit of hope at the end. As Aragorn himself once said during the battle of Helms Deep – “there is always hope.”

I give The Road 4 Cofftomic Particles 4 Cofflames  3 Cans of Coffgoods 3 Emotional Coffcoasters, 1 Coffcartand 2 Full Moons 🌕🌕.

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli

This is one of my top 5 favorite films of all time.

~~Originally posted on August 6, 2017~~

Sometimes, really good movies aren’t just something you watch – they’re something that happens to you. The first time I saw this past week’s movie it was quite an experience – mostly because it was a spontaneous decision, and I had no clue what it was about as I walked into the theater. It was a cold night in February of 2010, and I had gone to the movies to escape the rest of my life for a couple of hours. I used to do that more often when I lived around a lot of people. I couldn’t explain why, but sometimes I would just feel a need to get away, to be alone, to not have to talk to anyone, to rest and think. I’ve since learned that this is normal introvert behavior. That particular night my house had filled up with so many people that I couldn’t move. I was standing in the kitchen, watching as wave after wave of college students began devouring the meal I had spent half the day preparing. I was glad for my part in feeding them, and felt a deep satisfaction in my soul – and also an intense urge to quietly exit through the backdoor that I had been slowly pushed up against. So I did. And 10 minutes later I was sitting in an almost empty theater waiting to see what in the world The Book of Eli was about.

The movie pulled me in really slowly as it introduced me to Denzel Washington’s character (Eli) – a man walking alone through a post apocalyptic wasteland, bedding down for the night in some old shack as he carefully stokes to life the remaining juice in a scratched and scarred generation one iPod. He’s listening to Al Green’s – How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, and it contains the first words you hear in the movie, providing the background chorus to the drama about to unfold on the screen. It tells us what is going on inside this strange character we’re being introduced to – it’s a very sad lament – the honest prayer of a man who has had his heart ripped out, and is desperately crying out for a reason to keep going. The song reflects the scarred over wounds we see on Eli’s body as he changes his shirt and settles in for the night.

Eventually you learn that Eli has been carrying something of great value for the past 30 years – the last remaining Bible to exist in North America. There had been some kind of war in the past that ended with the victors destroying all the rest of them. Conflict ensues when Eli encounters the villain of the story, a crafty warlord named Carnegie – played by Gary Oldman – who just so happens to be in search of a Bible. Every day he sends out raiding parties to scour the surrounding wastelands in the hope of finding one. When these two characters meet each other, all Hell literally breaks loose.

I won’t venture into much more detail about the plot, but at the core of this film is the examination of something that Christianity has had to wrestle with since the 4th century when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and something it’s still dealing with today – the clash between genuine religious experience and the perversion of it by political entities that seek to use religion as a tool of manipulation to gain or maintain power over people. At the time, I was getting my Master’s Degree in Church History (which is also an examination between these two opposing forces), and I found it very impressive that the history of Christianity was so elegantly captured and personified through the drama unfolding between these two movie characters.

Carnegie’s christianity is political. Eli’s is personal. Carnegie wants to use the Bible to gain more power over people. Eli wants to find a place where people have the freedom to discover the Bible on their own terms. Carnegie wants to use it like a weapon to manipulate the masses. Eli wants to preserve its integrity as a beacon of hope. In the middle of this conflict is Solara – the adopted daughter and slave of Carnegie. It’s her character that brings hope and brightness into the story as she escapes the abusive confines of her home to follow after Eli and eventually latch onto the same almighty power that drives him.

When the credits rolled I couldn’t believe what I had seen. I think it’s very very difficult for filmmakers to make a religious-themed movie that is not only well done, but that doesn’t come across as cheesy, or that doesn’t entirely miss the point of what faith is even about. I shudder inside when I think of all the bad – and I mean terrible – Christian movies that elevate mediocrity and overall suckiness to an art form. And thankfully, the twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes made one that rises above that kind of canned nonsense.

I didn’t just watch their film that night all those years ago – I felt it.

And that is why I give The Book of Eli 5 Coffstars , 4 Coff-buds , 2 Coff-tickets , 2 hallelujah amens , and 1 cat-kabob

 

Southpaw

Southpaw

~~Originally posted on August 11, 2017~~

Karlie Crouch’s pick for our group’s Thursday Night Film Time this week was Southpaw. I had not yet seen this one, but Antoine Fuqua has been one of my favorite directors since Training Day back in 2001, and his follow up – Tears of the Sun in 2003. His most defining characteristic is being able to deftly genre-jump his way from project to project, each time applying his craft to an entirely different category of film. He’s dropped a few stinkers along the way for sure (2004’s King Arthur with Clive Owen for instance), but Southpaw isn’t one of them. Released in 2015, it’s a recent entry into his catalogue, and with the writing chops of Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), he’s brought all of his accumulated film experience into the boxing genre.

Of course, when it comes to making a boxing film, any director and screenwriter has to, at some point in their process, honestly contend with the fact that they’re treading on sacred ground that was long ago bought and paid for with Stallone’s blood, sweat, and tears. Sutter seems to have made a career out of trampling on holy ground, but in this case he’s much more careful with his screenplay. He doesn’t completely abandon the classic elements that made the Rocky saga great, but pays subtle homage to them while also injecting his own brand of tragic realism into the genre–and Sutter’s realism is very dark. Combined with Fuqua’s vision, the result is an experience that drags you down down down into a pit of despair as you watch the main character spiral into a black hole. But it doesn’t leave you there! (Manchester By The Sea, I’m looking at you – 😫)

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, the reigning boxing champ who is on top of the world. Without giving anything away, something happens to him about 20 minutes into the story that is the sitting-comfortably-in-your-home equivalent of receiving an unexpected uppercut to the jaw. It’s in that moment when you realize, ‘Oh, this isn’t Rocky.’ Thankfully, the story doesn’t end at this point, and you get to watch as this damaged character is slowly dismantled, re-arranged, healed, and put back together – mostly by Forrest Whitaker – the aging trainer/mentor figure. Whitaker (Tick Wills) is at his finest as he ambles from quiet discourse to energetic pep talk to loud bustling exclamations of woe and regret – all punctuated by an array of facial expressions that say more than his actual words. The meat of the story is the process by which Tick steadily hammers away at Billy’s hard outer shell in order to fully reveal the chaotic mess that’s inside him. Once this happens, Billy Hope is able to piece together a redemption story that can only really begin with his full acceptance of his own mistakes. He has to learn how to embrace responsibility for his own downfall, his own weaknesses, and how he has played a role in hurting those closest to him. The enemy he fights in the ring is a reflection of the enemy he fights inside his own heart and mind. Both fights are brutal, both fights are desperate, and both fights are metaphors for the kinds of battles that we all, as human beings on this planet, must face every day, in our own ways.

I give Southpaw 4 Coff-stars , 3 Coff-curls , 6 bowls of Coff-corn🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿, and 1 knockout 💥

Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite

~~Originally posted on August 18, 2017~~

It was sometime in the middle of 2005 when the name ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ began registering in my brain enough for me to actually devote energy into finding out what it meant. Released the previous summer, the film had already become an independent cult classic, and as more and more people were talking about it, I became curious. Everyone else I knew had already seen it. Good grief, even my own parents had seen it by that time. And then, one night, I found myself sitting in the home of my old pal Christopher Jones, being forced to watch it. I’ll admit, I didn’t entirely get the humor during that first viewing. There were parts that I found really hilarious, but just as many that made me cringe with awkwardness, or feel genuinely sad for the characters. Watching the movie is almost like experiencing a symphony that hits these three notes over and over again. Hilarious, Awkward, Sad… Hilarious, Awkward, Sad… Hilarious, Awkward, Sad… But something has happened to me in the years since I first watched Napoleon Dynamite – something that has made me unable to watch it now without a huge, unquenchable grin on my face the entire time.

Napoleon Dynamite takes place in the rural town of Preston, Idaho – a place that feels like it dropped anchor in about 1987 and was then dragged kicking and screaming through the 90s before washing up in 2004. The story centers around the lives of three high school misfits who find friendship in each other. Napoleon, Pedro, and Deb have a variety of mild antagonists to deal with. These include the ‘popular’ crowd in their school, Kip – Napoleon’s older brother who spends most of his time chatting online with his internet girlfriend, and Uncle Rico – that sleazy relative who shows up unannounced and wreaks havoc in the lives of his family because he peaked in high school and is miserable that life has been nothing but a downhill slide ever since. Together, the unlikely trio of heroes form a bond that allows them to overthrow the established social order of high school politics. When we first meet Napoleon he’s the archetypal teenage loner, constantly over-exaggerating in order to impress those around him into liking him. He’s the guy that (if we’re honest about it) we all would have made fun of, laughed at, and generally avoided if he was a real person that we knew in high school, regardless of whatever social pond we were swimming in at the time. But Napoleon has a pure heart, and in his innocence he attracts the affection of Deb who accepts him for who he is. As his confidence gathers momentum he’s able to let his guard down, shrug off discouragement from his family members, stop bragging about his imaginary ninja skills, and clinch Pedro’s run for class president by channeling Jamiroquai in a public display of dance moves that brings the entire school roaring to their feet in applause.

And I’ll be completely honest with you. Even though I’ve just done my darnedest to give a brief, satisfactory summary of this movie – nothing I’ve said or could say about it will truly do it justice. It’s in a genre of its own. It completely defies all attempts at standard categorization. It laughs at professional critical analysis, and it scoffs at conventional comedic movies. If you’ve never seen it before, gather the whole family (it’s safe for all ages), make some popcorn, and let Napoleon Dynamite transport you to the most familiar-feeling parallel dimension that you’ve never been to.

I give Napoleon Dynamite 4 Coffstars , 2 Coff-steaks 🥩🥩, 3 Coff-jams , 1 pocket full of Coff-tater tots , and 1 (tamed) wild honeymoon stallion

Sneakers

Sneakers

For those of you who don’t know me, I was born at the tail end of 1978. I guess 39 years really isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but from a technological point of view, it was prehistoric times. The first video games I played were on the Atari 2600, my family didn’t own a phone that wasn’t attached to the wall until I was in middle school, and we didn’t have a cell phone until I was 18. The first computer we had (a top of the line custom desktop) could have held about 50 songs on its entire hard drive, if mp3 files existed at the time—and they didn’t. Our second PC was able to connect to the internet after a few minutes of the modem making screeching and scrunching sounds, and no one else could use the phone while someone else was online. And then things started changing. They changed really fast. And now, 20 years later, it takes only a few seconds to see what people are doing on the other side of the planet. The barriers of global communication—which at one time included things like oceans, and mountains, and long-distance fees, no longer exist. Information availability is nearly without limit.

And 26 years ago, a quaint little film called Sneakers predicted this would happen. Three years before, Phil Alden Robinson had directed Field of Dreams, which is essentially a parable about Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones building a sacred temple in the form of a baseball field. Sneakers was Robinson’s follow-up, and even though it’s basically a heist film veiled in several other genres, it’s also a parable—a parable about the power of information in the digital age. It definitely has some fantastical plot elements, but in the two and a half decades since its release, it’s proven to be remarkably prophetic in regards to some of its ideological warnings concerning information technology. As the villain of the story, played by Sir Ben Kingsley states so eloquently to his protagonist Robert Redford: “The world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by little 1s and 0s, little bits of data… there’s a war out there; a world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets, it’s about who controls the information—what we see and hear, how we work, what we think—it’s all about the information.

Side Note: James Earl Jones makes a cameo appearance in this movie, and he has the best lines…

But all heaviness and ideological gravitas aside, Sneakers is just a really fun movie. It reminds me a lot of Ocean’s Eleven—it has a similar feel to it. And like Ocean’s Eleven, what really makes it a great film are the characters, their uniqueness, and how well their personalities ping-pong off each other. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me break down the team dynamic for you: There’s Sydney Poitier, the ex-CIA operative who functions as the co-leader of the team along with Robert Redford. He’s often roped into verbal sparring matches with Dan Aykroyd, who plays a technical genius obsessed with conspiracy theories. The heart of the team is David Strathairn who plays a blind computer hacker named Whistler. I’m not going to tell you why he’s the heart of the team—you just have to watch it. Then there’s Carl, played by the late River Phoenix in one of his last roles—he plays… well, he plays a kid named Carl. And finally, last but not least, is Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), playing the intelligent, quick-thinking, quick-witted, token female who’s obviously just had enough with all these dudes running around getting into trouble.

Movies about teams of people saving the world are pretty common these days, but if you want to watch something different, look no further than Sneakers—a film about a group of small business entrepreneurs (without superhuman abilities, without guns, and without Denzel Washington), that end up saving the world all the same. If you’ve never had the chance to behold this forgotten treasure from 1992, it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Green Mile

The Green Mile

~~Originally posted on July 9, 2017~~

I’m of the opinion that you can’t go wrong with a movie that has Tom Hanks on the cover – whether it’s Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, or The ‘Burbs – and that’s definitely true of the one Seth Dickey brought to our Thursday Night Movie Time this past week. The Green Mile (1999) was a collaboration between Director Frank Darabont and Stephen King. Five years earlier, the pair had brought The Shawshank Redemption to the screen, and this was their follow-up. Both films have a very similar tone. The main difference between the two is that Shawshank has a very subtle, biblical undertone, loosely based around the Old Testament story of Joseph, whereas The Green Mile has a plot that is overtly and undeniably based on the New Testament story of Jesus Christ. The Green Mile takes place down in Louisiana during the time of the Great Depression, and revolves primarily around the interaction between Tom Hanks’ character Paul Edgecomb – a death row prison guard, and his prisoner John Coffey – an extremely large black man (portrayed by the late Michael Clarke Duncan, may he rest in peace) who has been wrongly convicted of raping and murdering two young white girls. Throughout the course of the film we see that Coffey has a variety of supernatural abilities which include healing disease, prophecy, sensing the good and evil in other people, and even resurrecting a dead mouse. He also has a genuine concern for other people, including strangers, as well as a childlike sense of wonder. His conviction as a child rapist and murderer is based entirely on outward appearances and racism. We don’t even see the trial, because whatever trial he had was irrelevant – he’s an eight foot tall black man and a stranger – his guilt was assumed the moment they found him holding the dead bodies of these two little white girls. The reality is that he found them after they had already been killed, and was trying to heal them. This film doesn’t just touch lightly on an important issue – it presses firmly on a deep and open wound that our country is still grappling with today. And it does so by reminding us that the qualities which make someone a genuine child of God cannot be seen with the eyes. This is what Hanks’ character learns in the film. It’s what we, as a society, still have not learned. I give The Green Mile 4 Coffstars 🌠🌠🌠🌠, 3 Coff-tears, 2 Coff-cones, and 1 Mr. Jingles .

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps

Many years ago, when I was just a young lad with a high-pitched voice that still sounded like my sisters’ … mom and dad read me the ancient story of one of the most mightiest of manliest of men to have ever existed – King David. Of course, due to my age, they were reading from an extremely abridged and docile version of the Bible with lots of pictures… that obviously contained none of the sex and violence that’s in the real Bible. If you’ve never read the sacred tomes of the Old Testament, and in particular the books of First and Second Samuel, they are more graphic and explicit than any episode of Game of Thrones. And that is not an exaggeration, but that is another review for another time. At any rate, what those fluffy 80s picture Bibles did not leave out, was the amount of running, chasing, and hiding that dominates so much of King David’s story. David was, quite literally, in regards to Judeo-Christian literature and culture – the original ‘man on the run.’ In his early years, before he became king, David was a hunted man. He was always on the move, unjustly accused, pursued by his enemies, pursued by the reigning authorities, hiding in caves, scrounging for food, ‘making his way… the only way he knew how…’  David’s early story is about how God protects him, guides him, and empowers him during this time in his life. It’s the story of how he remained faithful under constant duress, and how he waited patiently for the day when justice would be done, and he would finally become the king. This is one of the stories I found fascinating as a kid. And it’s one of the oldest stories in existence that is still being re-told to this day, and has been re-told, re-imagined, and re-worked over and over again so many times, in so many different ways. David’s journey from shepherd to king has been extrapolated, carefully pulled up by its deepest roots, stripped down to the core of its DNA, and transplanted into so many different stories that it’s probably impossible to list them all – I’m not even going to try. It’s the original seed from which so many other orchards have been cultivated.

As an example of what I’m talking about – I first encountered this re-grafting of David’s story when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. The character of Aragorn has a story arc, throughout Tolkien’s sprawling epic, that is taken completely from David’s early life. Aragorn’s story is an example of what I would call a pure distillation of the source material. It’s essentially the same general premise, with fantasy elements, names, and places substituting for counterparts in the original story. And of course, because it’s a fairy tale – not real life – it leaves out all the uncomfortable parts that the Biblical narrative isn’t afraid to show us.

Now, as I’m sure most of us are aware, The Lord of the Rings was eventually made into a landmark cinematic trilogy that was released between 2001 and 2003. But way back in 1935, at around the same time that Tolkien was crafting The Hobbit novel into its final form, another Englishman by the name of Alfred J. Hitchcock was releasing a film called The 39 Steps. And just to give credit where it is due, this film was an adaptation of a book written in 1915 by John Buchan, not an original work by Hitchcock. We can, however, give credit to Hitchcock for making (as far as I can tell) the very first masterpiece that translated the ancient literary example of the hero who is hunted down, on the run for his life, trying to find justice – The King David Motif, if you will – into a cinematic formula that has since been copied, tweaked, adjusted, and re-adapted many times over. Here’s a brief list of movies that I’ve seen, which employ some variation of this formula:

Running Man, The Fugitive, Enemy of the State, Waterworld, Mission Impossible, The Jason Bourne movies, Shooter, The Island, Minority Report, and Mad Max: Fury Road… just to name a few. There are many more of course, and the whole “Spy” genre itself, as we know it in movies today, is mostly an overgrowth from that indigenous sapling planted by Hitchcock so many years ago.

Side Note: Hitchcock himself used the same formula again in his later film, North by Northwest in 1959 – one of his most successful films.

In The 39 Steps, the hero is Richard Hannay, a Canadian traveling in Britain who is unwittingly caught up in an espionage conspiracy, accused of murder, and chased up into the Scottish countryside by both the criminals and the police. Along the way (just to make things interesting) he jumps off a train, meets some odd characters up in the moors, is almost fatally shot, accidentally propelled to the front of a political rally, forced to give a public speech, and gets handcuffed to a woman named Pamela who hates him, and then eventually falls in love with him… at least, I think she falls in love with him… I mean they’re holding hands at the end, and this was 1935, so… you know. I guess, in Hitchcock’s mind, if you’re handcuffed to the same person long enough, you just eventually go with it. Actually, the relationship between Hannay and Pamela reminded me a great deal of the relationship that forms between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Capra’s It Happened One Night. But that’s another review.

Perhaps most interestingly, as is often the case with these kinds of tales, there is usually either some small flourish, sweeping gesture, or over-arching plot element that indicates the presence of the divine in the midst of the hero’s struggle. These act as clues; small trails of crumbs that lead back to the original loaf of bread that started it all. If the early story of King David really is the ancient progenitor of this literary genre, and Hitchcock’s film a true echo of that, then we could expect to find the same kind of evidence in The 39 Steps. And Hitchcock, who was trained by Jesuits in Catholic school to analyze art at an early age, does not disappoint. In this case, we see the divine presence most clearly on display in the form of a church hymnal; it’s conspicuously situated snuggly in the left breast pocket of Hannay’s coat where it stops the aforementioned bullit that would have otherwise killed him. Bullseye.

Believe it or not, this was the first Hitchcock film that I’ve ever watched, and aside from the plot, which is interesting enough on its own, the thing that really makes this old movie shine is how much anxiety it’s able to convey through the screen. This is where Hitchcock’s talent as a filmmaker becomes apparent. He really makes you feel like you’re the one handcuffed to Richard Hannay as he frantically trots from one place to the next. Moreover, it’s extremely frustrating to witness how no one believes Hannay when he tries to tell them what’s happening to him, leaving him with no choice but to lie in order to get help from people! Hitchcock is indeed the legendary master of suspense that he’s been made out to be.

I’ve known about Alfred Hitchcock, and been aware of his impact on the history of filmmaking for most of my life – even having never seen one of his films. But after watching The 39 Steps, I now know why he’s considered one of the greatest directors of all time. In this movie at least, he took an ancient, timeless story that had been distilled into something that fit the time in which he was living, and crafted it into a cinematic formula that we can still appreciate 83 years later.