How I Choose What to Watch

Photo by Johanna Vogt on Unsplash

I started logging the books I read in 2010. I added movies and television shows to my list in 2018. I keep a Media Log.

The book list began as a way to chronicle my intellectual journey. It was also a way for me to review what I’d been up to each year, like a time capsule. I’ve found it useful when someone asks for a book recommendation. I review my list and pluck titles that match the inquirer’s interest. I propose books based on my evaluation of the author, their work, and knowledge of my friend’s loves and distastes. Furthermore, if someone reviews my list, it is possible for a connection based on shared interest to result, or at least a conversation. Finally, the list helps me to be aware of how, with whom, and toward what ends I am spending my time.

The movie and television lists, once added, have served the same purposes.

A friend recently asked how I choose what to watch. My viewing choices are made in light of:

  1. What’s available. It has been several years since our family has subscribed to a cable service. We have antenna for our television, a collection of DVDs and VHS tapes, and streaming services. Right now, I have access to Amazon Prime, Peacock, and Kanopy. In the past, I’ve subscribed to Sling TV, Netflix, Hulu+, ESPN+, and Disney+. As streaming has become more mainstream, properties (movies and shows) are diffused across multiple sources. We can’t subscribe to them all, or I can’t. One result: I watch a variety of things, even movies and shows I don’t find interesting. I’m passing time. The scarcity of my choices is a factor. Not everything available to me is great.
  2. What my friends and acquaintances are watching. I ask around. We no longer live in the monoculture. Everyone watches different stuff. But if I can watch what friends and acquaintances are watching I’ll see if it is available to me for the possible conversation points. Chances are it won’t be if it is exclusive to a streaming service. If so, I’ll let that one go, or I’ll file it on a list (properties are dropped and picked up by other services). Movies and shows are reference points for connection. I never know when I’ll pick up a line, reference, or illustration that will help me communicate with those in my circle.
  3. When something is popular. I’m not always interested in Academy Award nominated films because after watching a lot of those films I’ve decided many of those films (in recent years), while beautifully shot and artfully crafted, aren’t any good. These days, they are made for critics. If you want to be in conversation with critics, watch those films. I’m not a critic in any formal or technical sense. But I am interested in people. People, generally, are not the audience for the movies that win the top awards. When the general public is interested in a movie (Top Gun: Maverick), I’m interested in why. So I see it.
  4. What’s considered an important, notable, or classic film. In the past, I’ve consulted a list of top films and then seen what is available to me. I enjoy culture and culture making. I have also learned filmmakers are in dialogue with other filmmakers. This took me a long time to pick up on. But if you read about movies and shows, if you pay attention to what you’re watching, you’ll begin to see what the filmmakers are doing. These movies may be available on a streaming service, or they may be…
  5. What I can get my hands on through the public library. If it is an old, classic film, it is usually available. If it is a new DVD release, I check a list like this one and scan back over the last few months, seeing what has come to home video. Libraries usually add new DVDs to their holdings, and you can place a hold request before the DVD arrives at the local branch. A simple search reveals if your local library is planning to obtain a copy. They create the record before adding it to the shelves. One you request it, you’re in the queue.
  6. What I’ve recorded on a list. I write down movies and shows to check out. I have a list titled “Movies to Watch.” This connects to the next one…
  7. When I hear about a movie or television show in a book, sermon, or podcast, and the way it is talked about compels me. Sometimes this is when a part of a movie, or a theme, is offered as an illustration of something. A scene is depicted, dialogue is quoted, or a description is offered that makes me think, “I need to see that. I want to see that.” Then I chase. If I have the time and energy to get my hands on it quickly and watch it soon, I do it. If not, I file it (see #6).
  8. When I’ve spent energy on more meaningful pursuits. I watch movies and television late in the day, usually in the evenings, with the energy I have leftover from a day at work, helping around the house, spending time with family, volunteering, or some other escapade.
  9. When it is a genre I enjoy. I’m a caveman: I like action films. If it stars Keanu Reeves, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, Tom Cruise, Jet Li, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Kurt Russell, Brad Pitt, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Dave Bautista, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’m in. Especially Arnold. I like science fiction and fantasy films, too. In my second genre tier, I like animation, detective stories, thrillers, and drama. On the third tier is comedy and documentary films. I stay away from horror, with a few exceptions. I’ve been interested in the Jordan Peele movies. I’ve dipped in and out of Hitchcock films.

From the above it is easy to tell that most of the movies and shows I watch are viewed on my television set, computer monitor, or tablet screen. But I enjoy watching movies on the big screen. I’ll go to the theater on occasion. What do I see? Summer blockbusters, particularly action films or select super hero movies, stuff that is better viewed in a room made for visual spectacle and earth-shaking “boom boom.”

My primary interest in movies and shows is entertainment. My rating system is straightforward: “I loved it,” “I hated it,” or “It was okay.” My conversation around movies and shows can be more layered. I’m happy to talk about the themes, or if I pick up on something the filmmaker is doing I offer analysis. I do think movies and shows capture, relay, or move ideas forward, some good, many bad. They are reflections of the zeitgeist. I do like it when I sense the filmmaker attempting to do something, even if they fail spectacularly. And I do give filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. Making art is hard. I’ve liked shows (labeling something “okay”) that other people didn’t enjoy at all. I accept the derision that comes my way as a result. It might even be deserved.

My secondary interest is for the references. I want to be conversant with friends, neighbors, and the culture; I want to understand the times. I want to be an effective communicator. Movies and shows have helped me convey ideas, teach, preach, and coach. I watch animated movies because I volunteer with kids. On a number of occasions my knowledge of movies and shows has helped me generate a laugh. Movies and shows provide shorthand that have helped me make connections.

It is thought that the first movie was made by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878: The Horse in Motion. You’ve probably seen it. Movies have been around about 150 years. We’ve come a long way. Tons of stuff has been made; more bad than good. Even with that being the case, it would require a serious investment of time, energy, and resources to become fluent in the good stuff.

I’m content with my bricolage, my bizarre mix of what I’ve found at hand. I’m open to recommendations. I may like your suggestion. I may hate it. I may think it is okay. I hope I’ll be entertained. But even if not, we’ll share one thing: the reference.

Top Gun: Maverick – Woo!

I’m not the world’s greatest movie critic. My rating scale is simple:

  • Hated it.
  • One big okay.
  • Good.
  • Awesome. I recommend it. 48 hours later, I’m still thinking about it.

Top Gun: Maverick strikes all the right notes for me. The first official trailer dropped in 2019. There’s a nostalgia factor for me that’s off the charts. The franchise anthem gives me goose bumps. I’m a sucker for action films (I’ve watched a lot of bad ones). Most of the action films I like were made in the 1980s. The movie industry had a few great action stars, clear and compelling villains that could play off our foreign policy concerns, and the limits on special effects kept run times between 90 minutes and two hours.

Top Gun was one of those “good” action films that I enjoyed as a young person, albeit in the edited-for-television format. The first movie debuted when I was seven years old. But Kenny Loggins’ hit “Danger Zone” had been cemented in my mind thanks to radio play, and as a Nintendo kid, the 1987 Konami Game was a staple among my friends.

I also am a fan of Tom Cruise. Like a lot of people, his acts of insanity in the early 2000s turned me away from a while. But after Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, and my enjoyment of his performance in Edge of Tomorrow (science fiction is another favorite genre of mine), I was back on board. I was happy to see him back in the role of Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, too. I wanted to see what an older Cruise would bring to the character. I wasn’t disappointed.

Top Gun: Maverick has a lot of throw-backs to the original film. A friend said that the movie lacked the number of great one-liners the original film had, and that the score wasn’t as good. He immediately went to the comparison game. But both movies can be great, in their own way.

This film has a faceless, nameless enemy. It has a battle plot that exactly parallels the final run on the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope (also known as “Star Wars“).

It contains a romance subplot between Mitchell and Penny Benjamin, a single mom and local bar owner, played by Jennifer Connelly.

The main plot driver is that of the relationship between Captain Mitchell and Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, son of Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, whom we know from the original film. Not only does Mitchell still carry feelings of guilt from Goose’s death, he sees himself as a failed father-figure for Rooster, too, and is resented for it.

The film also comments on the need for the older generation to hand the baton to an emerging generation, and old debates over technology–its use, advantages, and disadvantages. In this film, the case is made for the human pilot over and against drone technology.

And it all works.

When this movie was over and the credits rolled, I had seen everything I had wanted. There was great action, character development, and plenty of thrills. This movie was a wonderful depiction of the miracle of aviation, the valor of military service, the stakes in warfare, was filled with incredible camerawork and stunning color, had moments of humor and tenderness, and was a lot of fun. Molly liked it, too.

It was awesome. I recommend it. More than 48 hours later, I’m still thinking about it.

Marvel: Going the Way of Star Wars

Photo by Pete Alexopoulos on Unsplash

Nothing’s really been right since Iron Man died, has it? Everything the MCU has given us since Avengers: Endgame has carried a whiff of the sideshow. These days, the Marvel brand stands for prodigious quantity but so-so quality. The series miraculously got us emotionally invested in a broad range of compelling characters, but is now morphing into merely a factory that emits product. Marvel used to make us feel we really couldn’t skip a single episode of the saga. Now that it’s lobbing many hours of decreasingly interesting entertainment at us each month, though, it’s hard to keep up, and there is no longer any particular reason to do so.

Kyle Smith, “Bland Widow

I’m afraid he’s right.

Not Even Funny, Bro

Stalin was a monster.

Stallone is a hero.

I shared this with a friend and he said, “Blasphemy.” Yes. Indeed.

But then I replied and said that at the rate we’re going in movies these days, it is only a matter of time before the Rocky franchise is rebooted with a protagonist representing a totalitarian regime, wrought through with strongly anti-American themes.

The anti-Rocky. Starring Sylvester Staline.

The horror.

Kyle Smith Slams WW84 for its Shades of Blart

Having forsaken the charred moral landscapes of Nolan/Snyder but unable to match Marvel’s sly self-awareness, WW84 (like Aquaman before it) reverts to the mode of pre-2005 superhero movies built around campy set pieces and moronic plotting. Diana, for instance, comes across the plot’s instigator when she thwarts . . . a jewelry-store robbery in a shopping mall. A mall robbery? What is she doing at this crime scene in the first place? She’s supposed to be a goddess, not Paul Blart in a tiara.

Kyle Smith, “Movie Review: Where’s the Beef, Wonder Woman 1984?

Kyle Smith’s overall assessment of the DC Universe is one I agree with, and, despite his negative review of WW84, I still plan to see it (if I can find an open theater around here). As for the review excerpt I cited above, there is a world of difference between Kevin Smith and Gal Gadot, but Smith’s choice to compare these stars’ signature roles made me laugh, and also raises all kinds of amusing questions about the hero stories we tell, and how we tell them.

I loved Wonder Woman. And I’m bummed to hear the follow up may be a step backward for the franchise. I guess I’ll see what I think.

Pop Culture Art – Sam Gilbey

I’m a fan of film and certain elements of pop culture, and Sam Gilbey has produced interesting and visually compelling representations of several cinematic classics. I came across his work here. Below are my favorites.

Back to the Future Delorean (licensed by Universal Studios and produced in collaboration with Fanattik).
Die Hard (licensed by 20th Century Fox and produced in collaboration with Fanattik).
Jurassic Park (licensed by Universal Studios and produced in collaboration with Fanattik).
Jaws (licensed by Universal Studios and produced in collaboration with Fanattik).
Prince Vultan (official Flash Gordon print produced in collaboration with Fanattik).

The Jurassic Park and Jaws prints make fantastic use of perspective and foreshortening. The Die Hard image makes me want to demand someone bring me my detonators, and Prince Vultan brings to mind the query, “Gordon’s alive?

Flash. He’s for every one of us. Singing Queen’s “Flash Gordon Theme” yet?


And you’re welcome.

Gilbey’s website has even more cool images. Check it out.

Star Wars: A Brand Experience

The movie has moments of great potential. A pivotal lightsaber fight between Rey and Kylo Ren is reminiscent of the fight between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Even some of the moves used mirror those of Skywalker and Kenobi—this battle should have echoed theirs while also including a surprising twist of some kind. Star Wars has always featured this kind of intertextual referencing, of course. At their best, the movies make references but with slight alterations to surprise the viewers and shift the meaning. What made the throne room scene work in The Last Jedi, for example, is that it echoed a similar scene in Return of the Jedi but went in a wildly different direction.

Abrams never takes these kinds of risks. He makes no attempt to play with past scenes in these ways; in the two Disney trilogy films he directed—The Force Awakens and Rise of Skywalker—he simply repeats past scenes or rhymes them in unimaginative ways. Thus the Death Star becomes Starkiller Base which becomes an armada of star destroyers armed with Death Star-style weapons. Thus the first trilogy concludes with a simultaneous space battle featuring the Millennium Falcon and Wedge Antilles and a separate lightsaber battle—and the Disney trilogy ends with a simultaneous space battle featuring the Millennium Falcon and Wedge Antilles and a separate lightsaber battle. This is storytelling with recycled parts, devoid of imagination or risk-taking.

– Jake Meador writing at First Things, “Why the Rise of Skywalker Fails

Meador’s review basically says, “Disney has abandoned storytelling in favor of making money.” Sadly, Star Wars has become a brand experience, with each new film designed to evoke feelings of nostalgia and the brief satisfaction that comes with seeing familiar characters and our favorite fantastical machines on screen. Nevermind dialogue, nevermind story, nevermind compelling themes, nevermind myth or cosmic struggle. Fan service and the almighty dollar reign supreme.

Yet, I continue to be a fan. I love Empire, A New Hope and Jedi (in that order). I enjoyed Rogue One and Solo, despite disagreements I have with how they massaged Han’s character arc. When I left The Phantom Menance I begged friends to tell me it was good and then hated every successive prequel. I can accept the soft reboot of The Force Awakens but The Last Jedi gave us numerous confounding and stupifying plot decisions.

Finally, as I walked to my car following The Rise of Skywalker, I said, “Thank the Maker the Skywalker saga is over.”

Perhaps there will be other Star Wars flims that tell us stand-alone stories in an expanding universe. Maybe there is a compelling character remaining buried deep within the canon, waiting for their on-screen debut. Maybe the murkiness of Episodes VII-IX will drive writers back towards a story about good and evil, and give us sympathetic heroes, interesting rogues, and disgusting villains.

I doubt it. I anticipate films that pander to a certain segment of the Twitter commentariat.

But whatever they make I’ll be there to watch, and that is part of the problem.