As I begin to celebrate the transition out of summer and into the season of hoodies, football, and pumpkin-spice-everything (Mr. Autumn man is upon us), I thought I’d take a minute to reflect on the greatest stuff I’ve watched, played, or read over the past few months. I wish I had time to write about some of these things in more depth, but I’d rather get a few brief thoughts down now than nothing at all, especially since I’d set out this year to write a lot more frequently than I have.
One note, big-picture wise: this was not a good summer for movies both critically and commercially, as has been discussed and analyzed by the internet ad nauseum. I saw the usual crop of tent-pole releases, but other than Captain America: Civil War, nothing popped. From Finding Dory to X-Men: Apocalypse to Star Trek: Beyond, I never really left the theater with a sense of awe or desire to return for an additional viewing. Independence Day: Resurgence, Jason Bourne, and Suicide Squad were reviewed so poorly that I skipped them altogether, a sign that I personally may have hit a point of fatigue with seeing some of these blockbusters just for the sake of having an opinion. Fortunately, a few truly memorable indies sailed around the sea of mediocrity and will definitely make land on my list of favorites at the end of the year. But there’s no question that Hollywood failed to deliver the goods this summer, and one can only hope that as the studios scramble to figure out what happened, someone manages to take the right lesson from the successes and the failures.
With that broad thought out of the way, here are some of the stuff I really enjoyed:
Captain America: Civil War
With the aforementioned failure of so many big-budget action spectacles this summer, it’s comforting to know that, 13 movies in, Marvel Studios still knows what it’s doing. Pitting two of their biggest characters against one another in an ideological standoff made for a more compelling conflict than the introduction of yet another disposable villain would have, and the arguments made by both Tony Stark and Steve Rodgers were smartly balanced and resonated with real-world politics. Everyone I saw this with had a firm, vocal opinion about whose side they were on and why, and the group was split evenly down the middle. Pulling that off is an incredible feat from a writing standpoint, never mind the fact that this film also managed to introduce what will likely be the definitive cinematic depiction of Spider Man in a story already bursting at the seams with established characters. Outstanding job by Joe and Anthony Russo, who have proven themselves more than capable of seeing this phase of the Avengers’ story through to its conclusion.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I never expected an under-the-radar indie from New Zealand to be my best movie-going surprise of the summer. Chronicling the misadventure of an orphaned at-risk youth and his reluctant caretaker (a grizzled Sam Neill), Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a charming, heartfelt, and genuinely funny film that’s just downright pleasant to watch the whole way through. The young actor at the center of the story is well cast and effortlessly carries the comedic and emotional weight of the script, and a short but hysterical appearance by Rhys Darby nearly steals the show. The soundtrack is quirky, the cinematography stunning (as to be expected at this point from anything shot in New Zealand) and the editing brisk enough to avoid any lulls. This is a fresh and original experience from beginning to end, especially when placed up against this summer’s duds.
Hell or High Water
Another out-of-nowhere indie, this Texas-set cops-and-robbers thriller has more meat on the bone than the average heist film. Chris Pine successfully trades in Captain Kirk’s swagger for the quiet desperation of a down-and-out cowboy trying to provide a future for his family by any means necessary. Ben Foster is darkly funny as Pine’s loose-cannon of a brother, and Jeff Bridges rounds things out with his perfectly Bridges-esque portrayal of the prototypical “lawman on the verge of retirement.” Smartly painted against the backdrop of the dismal housing crisis, Hell or High Water wrings extra suspense out of its brief action set pieces because its characters are worthy of investment.
OJ: Made In America
I was old enough to be aware of the OJ trial without knowing the nitty-gritty details of what was going on beyond the broad strokes of the case. I've since recognized it as a cultural milestone, but never quite understood why it elicited such massive attention by the media (outside of our lurid fascination with grisly crimes and celebrity scandals). But this incredible 5-part entry in ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary series completely upended my understanding of not just that case, but the entire framework of race relations in the city I’ve lived in for 10 years (not to mention the country as a whole). OJ: Made in America spends four hours thoroughly examining the Civil Rights movement, a toxic LAPD, and OJ’s life as a lauded black athlete before even beginning to let the murder, arrest and subsequent trial unfold. For anyone who wasn’t alive from the 60's forward or hasn’t spent ample time examining the subject of race beyond a baseline knowledge, the result is an indispensable level of context that allows the trial, as well as the media spectacle surrounding it, to be understood on a higher level. On top of the content itself, the doc is stylistically brilliant, with archival footage and new interviews seamlessly coming together over an eloquent score as the narrative unfolds. This is a remarkable achievement and the definitive telling of an American tragedy.
Netflix’s original sci-fi series was the surprise pop culture phenomenon of the summer, and rightfully so. The buzz around this show built faster than you can toast an Eggo waffle, so much so that it was on the verge of becoming one of those “enough about it already” things that I write off solely because I’m sick of hearing about it. Fortunately, its log-line ticked too many of my boxes to pass up, and after starting it on a Friday night after work, Gina and I had run through all eight episodes before the weekend was over (a rarity for us). The level of nostalgia that Stranger Things evokes is off the charts, but it deserves acclaim for managing to hit all those notes without directly remaking an existing film or TV show. Despite all of the references (both subtle and overt), this is a wholly original story with fleshed out characters embarking on a freaky and fun sci-fi horror adventure. The child actors are perfectly cast, the tale unfolds at a brisk pace (eight episodes is just right), and the whole thing is underscored by an 80’s-tastic synth-wave soundtrack that has since sent me down a rabbit hole of music discovery for a genre I didn’t know existed. Hopefully the Duffer Brothers can deliver a second season that has all of the thrills and chills of this debut without getting bogged down by an unwieldy mythology.
Neuromancer / Count Zero / Mona Lisa Overdrive
I have a LOT of classics on my reading list that I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t gotten to yet, and as far as the science fiction genre goes, William Gibson’s Neuromancer was high among them. At the recommendation of a co-worker, I finally picked it up, along with its two sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Neuromancer really does stand apart as something special for predicting so many futuristic concepts and filtering them through a visual aesthetic that would come to be known as "cyberpunk." The original story itself is the strongest, focused primarily on a single anti-hero as he becomes entangled in a plot to disrupt a massive corporation and...man is that book difficult to summarize in one sentence. Needless to say, it’s full of great moments and neat futuristic concepts. The follow-ups were worth reading, and Mona Lisa Overdrive does a particularly good job of bringing the trilogy full circle, but Gibson’s decision to alternate among 3 or 4 different characters’ perspectives in the later books slowed the storytelling momentum down considerably. Still, happy to check these off the list, and to include Neuromancer among my favorite books of all time.
I spent countless hours of my adolescence navigating the original Doom’s labyrinthine levels, slaying pixelated demons, collecting health packs, and struggling to stay alive without resorting to cheat codes. While it’s still considered one of the most influential and enduring games ever made, the FPS genre has evolved over the past twenty years away from Doom’s run-and-gun simplicity toward rich, story-driven experiences with scripted sequences, well-drawn characters, and more complex gameplay mechanics. In an inspired approach, the 2016 Doom reboot abandons many of those advancements in favor of a return to the franchise's roots, and the result is an adrenaline-fueled rampage of a game that tests players core, twitch-based skills while rarely letting dialogue or cut-scenes interrupt the action. For the record, I’m very much in favor of quality stories in games (see below) so I’m shocked that this worked for me as well as it did. But the kill / upgrade / explore feedback loop is rock solid, and despite the anachronistic gameplay, the graphics, sound, and presentation are as polished as one could expect from a triple-A title (especially from id Software). This is the double-barrel shotgun blast of gaming nostalgia I didn’t know I needed this summer.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Unlike the Doom reboot, Uncharted 4 is a game I had massive expectations for, having loved the previous three entries of Naughty Dog’s legendary franchise. Thankfully, Nathan Drake’s 4th (and final) adventure is a sublime experience from beginning to end, a thrilling tale in its own right and a satisfactory conclusion to the series overall. The story of Nate and his long lost brother is richly told, with dialogue and performances that easily rival any of the best Hollywood swashbucklers. Action, exploration, and puzzle-solving are on an equal rotation as usual, and other than a slightly uneven third act, the adventure is paced out brilliantly. This is easily the most graphically stunning console game I’ve played, with gorgeously detailed environments and smooth, natural animations. My only gripe is that the combat difficulty seemed a little out of whack at times, and the “near-death screen desaturation” effect kicks in way too early and often, disrupting the visuals at key moments. But this is a minor issue in a game that is otherwise near flawless, with a rewarding, resonant story and awe-inspiring action set-pieces. I truly hope Naughty Dog finds a sufficient reason to pick the franchise up one more time down the road, because as much as I look forward to their Last of Us sequel, nothing quite puts you in control of an Indiana Jones flick like Uncharted does, and I’ll always want more of that.
Jeff Lynne’s ELO at the Hollywood Bowl
I was fortunate enough to grow up with great classic rock music constantly filling the space between my ears. My parents introduced me to everything from Led Zeppelin and The Who to David Bowie and Billy Joel, and almost all of it stuck. High among the artists I learned to appreciate was Electric Light Orchestra, and I loved when my dad would crank up “Mr. Blue Sky” or “Fire On High” on our bookshelf-sized Polk Audio speakers. So seeing Jeff Lynne live at the Hollywood Bowl was a rare and special experience that ended up exceeding my expectations. What impressed me most was the impeccable balance between the diverse range of instruments and the "fullness" of the sound overall as each and every song was accurately reproduced. The lights and projections lent a fantastic visual element, all capped off with an encore performance of “Roll Over Beethoven” in sync with a spectacular fireworks display. Truly one of the best concert experiences I’ve had and a wonderful way to end the summer.