Category Archives: movie review

Jungle Book

Last night my family and I went to the new Disney movie Jungle Book directed by John Favreau.  It was the movie version I have been waiting for all my life.

MOWGLI_AND_SHANTI_by_FERNL

The amazing thing about this movie is the way it took the book and layered its themes and central idea on top of the classic 60’s Disney cartoon.  The music is still there and intact, though mostly moved to the end credits.  The kid is still cute and mostly vulnerable, at least until the conclusion.  And they have still given the Disneyesque comedic touch to the character of Baloo the bear, voiced by comedian Bill Murray in the this incarnation.  But this is a live action movie and the kid-friendly Bowdlerization of the original story is a thing no longer.

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A classic book illustration by E.J. Detmold

Fortunately for the young actor, Neel Sethi, they don’t require him to play the entire movie naked as would be required by a strictly by-the-book approach.  They allow him the Disney-dignity of the cartoon red loin cover.  But the sense of a human child facing the violence of the jungle naked, armed only with his creature-appropriate natural defenses, has been put back into the story. This version literally has teeth and claws.  We see the boy’s body wounded and scarred during the course of his life in the jungle.  And at a time of crucial confrontation, Mowgli takes the defense stolen from man village, a torch of the feared red flower, and throws it away into the water, facing the terrible tiger with only his wits and the abilities of his fangless, clawless human body.   Thus, an essential theme I loved about the book when I was twelve is restored.  Man has a place in the natural world even without the protections of civilization.

The story-telling is rich and nuanced, with multiple minor characters added.  Gray Brother has been restored to Mowgli’s family.  The fierce power of Mowgli’s wolf mother has been written back into the screenplay.  And the character of Akela is given far more importance in the story than the cartoon could even contemplate.  Although his role in aiding Mowgli to kill the tiger Shere Khan has been taken away from him, Akels’s death becomes the central motivation bringing Mowgli and Shere Khan together for the final inevitable confrontation.  And this movie does not shy away from the reality of death as the cartoon did, resurrecting Baloo at the end and Kaa’s attempts to eat Mowgli being turned into a joke (though I would like to note if you have never read the book, Kaa is not supposed to be a villain.  He was Mowgli’s wise and powerful friend in the book).  Even the tiger survives in the cartoon version.  This is no longer a cute cartoon story with a Disney sugared-up ending.

I will always treasure the 1960’s cartoon version.  I saw it at the Cecil Theater in Mason City, Iowa when I was ten.  I saw it with my mother and father and sisters and little brother.  It was my favorite Disney movie of all time at that point in my life.  I read and loved the book two years after that, a paperback copy that I bought with my own money from Scholastic book club back in 1968, in Mrs. Reitz’s sixth grade classroom.  That copy is dog-eared, but still in my library.  But this movie is the best thing that could possibly happen to bring all of that love of the story together and package it in a stunning visual experience.

the-jungle-book-2016-poster-header-165110

 

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Tarzan and the Timeless Valley of Nostalgia

There was a time when Tarzan was one of the ruling heroes of my boyhood fantasies of power and self-fulfillment. And, while Tarzan was a cartoon show on Saturday morning, comics by Burne Hogarth, movies in the theater in color with Mike Henry, or a weekly series on TV with Ron Ely, he was always Johnny Weissmuller to me. Weissmuller who played both Tarzan and Jungle Jim in the Saturday afternoon black-and-white movies.

I have to admit, I didn’t identify with the character of Tarzan as much as I thought of myself like the character “Boy”, played by Johnny Sheffield in movies like “Tarzan Finds a Son”. It was a significant part of my boyhood to imagine myself being like Boy, free from practically all restraints, able to gad about the dangerous jungle nearly naked with monkey pals and no fear. If I got into trouble by believing my skills were greater than they really were, I would save myself with ingenuity, and, barring that, Tarzan would rescue me. And, believe it or not, sometimes there were fixes that Tarzan got into that he needed me and Cheetah to be creative and get him out of. I knew in my heart that one day real life would be like that, especially once I grew into Tarzan and stopped being just Boy. That idea was in my head so loudly that several times I went to Bingham Park Woods, stripped down, and played Boy in the Jungle.

As in the previous essay about Heroes of Yesteryear, I learned important things from Johnny Weissmuller on Saturday TV. He taught me that all you really needed, even in the darkest jungles of Africa, was confidence and courage. You could stand up to any deadly danger without the protection of any armor, practically naked, in fact, if only you had that heroic goodness of heart. The little boy I was then still believes that whole-heartedly even in the aging body of an old man.

So, Tarzan continues to live in my memory, a part of me, an essential part of my education. He is me and I am he. But only in my mind. Me in a loincloth, swinging on a vine now… and probably going splat like an overripe melon on the jungle floor… well, that is too ridiculous to even imagine being real anymore. Yet he lives on in me. And he battles the metaphorical leopard-people of modern life through me. Unarmored. Confident. And unafraid.

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Essential Visits to Boo-Hooville

I have been ill this past weekend, a viral infection that I must take care of aggressively because I got vaccinated and survived the Covid pandemic but could still die from complications of the regular flu. So, what can I do about the fever, headaches, and diarrhea? Well, one thing I can do is watch a few Boo-Hoo movies. Seriously, crying cleans out the sinuses better than any medicine you can take. Especially deep-down from-the-bottom-of-the-heart, you’ve-touched-the-wounds-in-my-soul crying.

And, of course, I found some doozies.

Raya and the Last Dragon just became free-without-additional-fees on Disney+.

Wow! Is that ever a good movie for making puddles all over your comforter and pillows while trying to overcome a churning stomach and swimming vision!

The dragon kingdom has broken apart into five warring factions. Each has a broken piece of the dragon stone. And the evil cloud-things the dragon stone was supposed to protect the people from are sweeping across the country, turning everybody into statues of unfeeling stone. Raya, daughter of the last protector of the dragon stone, finds Sisu, the Last Dragon not turned to stone, and together they must reassemble the stone and the country it protects.

Literally everyone sacrifices themselves at some point in the story. The whole story is about how nothing will ever be right again until people trust each other and work together for the common good. Watch it. See if you can prove me wrong.

Sweettooth, the Netflix series based on the comic book of the same name, is another good one. In it the world after the pandemic apocalypse is increasingly inhabited by the animal-children, all of whom are born after the Big Sick wipes out nearly every normal human on the planet. And the Last Men who are still not yet sick are actively hunting kids like Gus, nicknamed Sweettooth, because the only possible cure comes from harvesting the living tissue of animal children.

I have watched six episodes so far. There is something major to weep for in every single episode. And the most amazing thing about Boo-Hoo movies is that most of them are classified as comedies. There are things to laugh at in every movie or every episode. The sobs and the ha-has always seem to go hand in hand.

Remember this one? How many tissues did it take to get you through that bus-ride near the end?

Grief and sadness are the flip side of the coin of comedy. You need them both to completely understand what love is. You need them both to get the jokes. And if you don’t feel them both in a great movie, you don’t know what a great movie really is. You will never see the light if you don’t know what darkness is.

Anyway, I have pretty much cried my head dry this weekend. And I have hopes the current bug will also pass. If it doesn’t, I guess I turn on another movie. Maybe the Incredibles should be next.

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Mr. Don Knotts

Being a child of the ’60s and also being fifty percent raised by the television set, it was my privilege to witness and learn from the master comedian of self-deprecating humor and ultimate humiliation. And there is no better preparation for becoming a Texas public school teacher than to learn how to be laughed at from Don Knotts.

I have spent a goodly number of hours during our recent COVID quarantine watching old DVDs of Don Knotts movies. The last four nights I viewed, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Shakiest Gun in the West, The Reluctant Astronaut, and The Love God. If you have never seen them, they come with the highest of Mickian recommendations, “They made me laugh so hard I cried.”

Of course, my favorite Don Knotts movie of all time is The Incredible Mr. Limpet.

Knotts always seems to play a character put upon by life in general, yet always believing that he has the inner something to make himself into a huge success. Every time he gets knocked down he quivers with frustration and throws a punch at his tormentors that invariably hits nothing unless he hits himself. In Mr. Limpet, we find a man so frustrated in his inability to help in the war effort that he throws himself into the sea, turning himself into a fish… a fish that helps defeat German U-boats. He makes himself into a hero, He even finds love among the fishes.

Knotts found the perfect comic partner in Tim Conway as they made The Apple Dumpling Gang and its sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. Slapstick antics and serious battles against the laws of physics somehow manage to win out over real bad guys with real guns and horses.

I guess the thing that makes Don Knotts such an important part of my television-sourced education is how much I identify with him. Life is a never-ending parade of humbling defeats and blush-inducing humiliations. I have spent most of my life being one with the little-guy within me, the put-upon fellow who has never quite overcome all the little hurts incurred by a desire to overcome the gravity holding me down.

And in a Don-Knotts world, based on a Don-Knotts movie script, things eventually turn out all right in the end. Mr. Chicken is proved right. Abner Peacock ends up marrying the beautiful girl who is the perfect one for him. The dentist who is mistaken for a gun-fighter still gets to be the hero in the end. So, there are worse things than living a Don Knotts sort of life.

Rest in peace, Don Knotts. For though you are no longer with us, you will always live on in my heart… and the hearts of many other Don Knotts wannabes.

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The World is a B-Movie

Yes, I am saying the world I live in is a low-budget commercial movie made without literary or artistic pretensions. You know, the kind where movie makers learn their craft, taking big risks with smaller consequences, and making the world of their picture reflect their heart rather than the producer’s lust for money.

Mostly what I am talking about are the movies I remember from late-night Saturday TV in black and white (regardless of whether or not the movie was made in Technicolor) and the less-risky as well as more-likely-good Saturday matinees on Channel 3. Movies made in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. They were perfect, of course, for the forbidden Midnight Movie on the show called Gravesend Manor. I had to sneak downstairs to watch it on Saturday nights with the volume turned way down low. (Not that Mom and Dad didn’t know. Well, maybe they didn’t know how many of those I watched completely naked… maybe.)

I watched this one when I was twelve, late night on an October Saturday. I had a bed-sheet with me to pull over my head at the scariest parts. Frankenstein was a crashed astronaut brought back to life by the magic of space radiation. He was uglier than sin, but still the hero of the movie, saving the Earth from invading guys in gorilla suits and scary masks (none of which looked like the movie poster.)

This one, starring James Whitmore, a really good B-Movie actor, was about giant ants coming up from the sewers and the underground to eat the city.

I would end up watching it again twenty years later when I was wearing clothes and not alone in the dark house lit only by a black-and-white TV screen.

I realized on the second viewing that it was actually a pretty good movie in spite of cheesy special effects. And I realized too that I had learned from James Whitmore’s hero character that, in times of crisis, you have to run towards the trouble rather than away from it, a thing that I used several times in my teaching career with fights and tornadoes and even rattlesnakes visiting the school campus looking to eat a seventh-grader or something (though it was a bad idea for the snake even if it had been successful.)

This one, of course, taught me that monsters liked to carry off pretty girls in bikinis. And not just on the poster, either. But it was the hero that got the girl, not the monster. This movie taught me that it sucks to be the monster. Though it also taught me that it was a good movie to take your pajamas off for and watch naked when you are thirteen.

But not all B-movies had to be watched late night on Saturdays. This movie was one of the first ones that I got to go to the movie theater to see by myself. (My sisters and little brother were still too young and got nightmares too easily to see such a movie.) It came out when I was in my teens and Mom and Dad began thinking of me as an adult once… or even possibly twice in a month.

And not all B-movies were monster movies, gangster movies, and westerns. Some, like a lot of Danny Kaye’s movies, were movies my Dad and my grandparents were more than happy to watch with me. I saw this one in both black-and-white and color. And I learned from this that it was okay to take advantage of happy accidents, like a case of mistaken identity, and using your wits, your creative singing ability, and your inexplicable good luck to win the day for everybody but the bad guys armed only with your good sense of humor.

And some of the best movies I have ever seen, judging by what I learned about movies as literature from Professor Loring Silet in his Modern Film Class at Iowa State University, are by their nature B-movies.

I am using movie posters in this blog post only from movies I have personally seen. (And I admit that not all of them are strictly “good” movies according to Professor Silet, but I like them all.)

Feel free to tell me in the comments if you have seen any of these movies yourself. I am open to all opinions, comments, and confessions.

This one is based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
I saw this one in college. You had to be 18 at the time to even buy a ticket.
I actually think that this is one of the best movies ever made. It will always make my own personal top-ten list.

I live in a B-movie world. The production values around me are not the top-dollar ones. But the stories are entertaining. The real-life heroes still run towards the problem. And it still sucks to be the monster. But it has always been worth the price of the ticket. And during my time on Earth here, even in 2020, I plan on staying till the end of the picture. I go nowhere until I see the Best Boy’s name in the end credits. And maybe not even then.

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On the Fritz

On this Star Wars Day (May the 4th be with you) I am a little perturbed that practically everything, including Star Wars, is on the fritz. My computer is on the fritz. It starts all sorts of programs and actions within programs without being prompted by a keystroke or click command. The picture I posted at the start of this essay had to be downloaded from Google twice because it downloaded the wrong selection for no reason. And then it had to be pasted into the block editor twice also because the first attempt failed to finish the transition.

Of course, for something “to be on the fritz” and be well understood, it would help if we knew the origin of the phrase. Unhelpfully, no one really knows how it was initially used. Was it a reference to something about Germans? “Fritz” was a common nickname for German soldiers in two world wars. But probably not. Germans are not always haywire.

I think it far more likely that the word is an onomatopoeia for the sound a radio makes when there is a short, it sparks, and then malfunctions, if not catches fire. That seems to me to be a much more fitting image to use for the way my computer works today with its faulty keyboard, and/or mouse pad. It also is a fitting definition for the condition our economy is in due to the pandemic.

But on this Star Wars Day, it is the most apt phrase to describe what has been done to the Star Wars Saga. Don’t get me wrong. I am an uncritical critic. I loved the Rise of Skywalker in the movie theater. The images and the action were great. But the writer in me did not appreciate how wires were crossed in the making of the latest trilogy. The resulting dumpster fire, while colorful and visually entertaining, caused the power of the story to be definitely “on the fritz”.

Character arcs were ruined. Kylo Ren went from evil secondary antagonist to big bad to heroic turn-around to… what? His character dies and disappears at the end. Why? How did he complete his arc?

Rey went from child of nobody to Jedi to possible Sith Lord to…? Where does she end up? Palpatine tells her if she kills him, his spirit will infuse her with Super Dark Side Power. She kills him anyway? Will she now try to destroy the universe in the next trilogy?

And what did Finn do besides ride a horse-thing in space?

But I’m not complaining. Even if the pandemic is going to kill me shortly, I have had a good life. I have seen all the Marvel movies so far. I taught English to well over 2,000 kids in a thirty-year teaching career. I wrote fifteen novels that I published. And no amount of sparks, fire, or fritzing is capable of changing all of that.

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Heroes of Yesteryear (Cowboy Movies)

When I was a boy, the Western reigned supreme on both television and in the movie theaters. Part of the benefit of that was being indoctrinated with “the Cowboy Way” which was a system of high ideals and morality that no longer exists, and in fact, never did exist outside of the imaginations of little boys in the 1950’s and 1960’s. We learned that good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black. You only won the shootout if you shot the bad guy and you didn’t draw your gun first.

Of course, the cowboys who were the “White Knights of the Great Plains” we worshiped as six-year-olds and the singing cowboys on TV were not the same ones we watched when we were more mature young men of ten to twelve. John Wayne starring in Hondo (after the book by Louis L’Amour) was more complicated than that, and we learned new things about the compromises you make in the name of survival and trying to do things the best way you can. From Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence we began to see that sometimes you shot the villain in the back from down the street to save your simple friend from the gunfight in the street when he was too naive and green to win.

Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral was the white hat we wanted desperately to be when we grew up. And then I saw on PBS in the late 60’s a documentary about the real shootout and the real compromises and consequences of the thing we once thought was so clearly good versus evil.

Wyatt went from the TV hero,

To the mostly moral man fighting what seemed like lawlessness,

To a morally ambiguous angel of death, winning on luck and guts rather than righteousness, and paying evil with vengeance while suffering the same himself from those dirty amoral cowboys, sometimes good, but mostly not.

And then along came Clint and “the Man with No Name”. More ambiguous and hard to fathom still…

Who really was The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? What made any one of them worse than the other two? You need to listen to the music before you decide. We are all of us good, bad, and ugly at times. And all of it can be made beautiful at the end with the right theme music behind it. Did we ever learn anything of real value from cowboy movies? Of course we did. They made us who we are today. They gave us the underpinnings of our person-hood. So, why do they not make them anymore? The video essay at the end of my wordiness has answers. But basically, we grew up and didn’t need them anymore. And children and youths of today have different heroes. Heroes who are heroic without shootouts and letting the bad guy draw his gun first. Ideally, heroes who are us.

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Tarzan and the Timeless Valley of Nostalgia

There was a time when Tarzan was one of the ruling heroes of my boyhood fantasies of power and self-fulfillment. And, while Tarzan was a cartoon show on Saturday morning, comics by Burne Hogarth, movies in the theater in color with Mike Henry, or a weekly series on TV with Ron Ely, he was always Johnny Weissmuller to me. Weissmuller who played both Tarzan and Jungle Jim in the Saturday afternoon black-and-white movies.

I have to admit, I didn’t identify with the character of Tarzan as much as I thought of myself like the character “Boy”, played by Johnny Sheffield in movies like “Tarzan Finds a Son”. It was a significant part of my boyhood to imagine myself being like Boy, free from practically all restraints, able to gad about the dangerous jungle nearly naked with monkey pals and no fear. If I got into trouble by believing my skills were greater than they really were, I would save myself with ingenuity, and, barring that, Tarzan would rescue me. And, believe it or not, sometimes there were fixes that Tarzan got into that he needed me and Cheetah to be creative and get him out of. I knew in my heart that one day real life would be like that, especially once I grew into Tarzan and stopped being just Boy. That idea was in my head so loudly that several times I went to Bingham Park Woods, stripped down, and played Boy in the Jungle.

As in the previous essay about Heroes of Yesteryear, I learned important things from Johnny Weissmuller on Saturday TV. He taught me that all you really needed, even in the darkest jungles of Africa, was confidence and courage. You could stand up to any deadly danger without the protection of any armor, practically naked, in fact, if only you had that heroic goodness of heart. The little boy I was then still believes that whole-heartedly even in the aging body of an old man.

So, Tarzan continues to live in my memory, a part of me, an essential part of my education. He is me and I am he. But only in my mind. Me in a loincloth, swinging on a vine now… and probably going splat like an overripe melon on the jungle floor… well, that is too ridiculous to even imagine being real anymore. Yet he lives on in me. And he battles the metaphorical leopard-people of modern life through me. Unarmored. Confident. And unafraid.

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I’d Like to Share Something Really Special…

I am spending Thanksgiving week at home in Texas by myself, except for the dog. The rest of my family is having a Thanksgiving meal together in Iowa (hopefully, if the weather doesn’t have other plans) or on a road trip to Central Florida, a trip I was supposed to also attend. I simply cannot travel to either place. My arthritis is too bad to sit for long car rides, and in the Trump economy, school teachers can’t afford air travel. So, I had to practice being selfless once again. They needed to do these things, and I had to talk them into doing these things without me. My misfortunes can’t be allowed to ruin my family’s grace and peace, not when I can still give gifts of myself by allowing them to go and do without worrying about me.

I can’t actually say that I learned to be selfless and encouraging from Fred Rogers. He was really only one of many such teachers, a list headed by my maternal grandfather. But in a way, he is responsible for giving me the tools I use to make things like that happen.

https://www.cinemovie.tv/Movie-Reviews/a-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood-movie-review

Yesterday I went to the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” at the Music City Mall in Lewisville. I can drive those few miles. And I freely admit to crying through a good portion of the movie. It is not really a sad movie. It is not actually a biopic. It is based on a real article in Esquire magazine by journalist Tom Junod. It is a partially fictionalized story about how the innate goodness of a man like Fred Rogers has a profound impact on the journalist, and all of the rest of us as well, through that act of caring and loving and gentle being-just-the-way-you-are. There is no doubt about it, when Tom Hanks, channeling Fred Rogers in the restaurant scene, asks for one minute of silence to think of all those people who have had a hand in making you who you are, he looks directly into the audience, he looks directly at me individually, and the entire theater is dead silent as everyone is doing exactly what the movie character is asking you to do. It was a singular moment in cinema that I have never experienced before. It touched my soul.

I left that movie theater feeling amazingly fulfilled. Was it because it was an excellent movie? It definitely was excellent. Was it because of the wonderful way Tom Hanks brought Fred Rogers back to life even though he looks nothing like him? He definitely made that happen. Or was it because the movie invoked a true angel, a once-living hand of God now gone from this world? Because Fred Rogers was that for so many kids for more than 800 episodes.

I must confess, when I was a teenager, I didn’t think much of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood“, though I saw some of those first black-and-white episodes, back when King Friday and Daniel Striped-Tiger were new. If I had to watch kids’ shows on PBS, which I often did because of younger siblings and cousins, I much preferred the color and the Muppets in “Sesame Street”.

But when I had been a teacher for a few years, and had to search hard for ways to communicate and teach for use with South Texas middle-schoolers, I began to see the true genius of Fred Rogers. He never talked down to kids. He never lost patience, even when things went wrong. He was always trying to keep it simple, even when the point he was making was as metaphorical as talking about keeping a “garden in your mind”. He was understandable. He was welcoming and relentlessly nice. And it wasn’t a TV character. It was really him.

I can’t really say this was a movie that changed my life. But maybe it did. I cried silently during a large portion of it, not because of the sad parts in the movie, but because I recognized so much of myself in the journalist waking up to the need to be as real and honest and able to connect to other people as Fred Rogers always did.

So, my conclusion to this essay that may be a movie review, or possibly an homage to Fred Rogers, is really quite simple. Thank you, Mr. Rogers. I really like you, just the way you are.

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Rewired for the Future

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Last night the Princess and I went to the Dollar Movie in Plano to see the new Spielberg epic, Ready Player One.  (Yes, I know the movie cost $2.70 apiece, but it is still called the Dollar Movie.)  We were blown away with unbridled enthusiasm.  (Enthusiasm takes the place of wind, right?)  For me, the story brought back everything I loved about the 80’s and early 90’s.  The movie is filled with cultural references to things like the Iron Giant,  Mortal Combat, Mobile Suit Gundam, and even the Ninja Turtles.  For the Princess it brought the gaming world and its online possibilities to a sort of fantasy reality that gamers are already beginning to step into.  She wants to be a maker of anime, a game designer, or an animator, and is already well on her way to becoming that.

 

The story is about a future dystopia where life as it actually is is so much worse than the life you can live inside the virtual game world, where life is what you want it to be in your wildest fantasies.

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And the plot revolves around gambling on your fantasy game skills to overcome the corporate cleptocracy with a magnificent all-or-nothing gamble to find the three keys and win the world.

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And in many ways, this techno-virtual-fantasy story is absolutely relevant to the lives we are living at this very moment.  Trump’s cleptocracy is determined to take everything away from us, healthcare, clean drinking water, freedom of speech, and many other things, so that he and his corporate villain-friends can squeeze more profits out of our decline and suffering.  We are living in a real world that will soon resemble the mundane real world of the movie.  And we need to be prepared to fight back in a world as foreign to the world of the 1950’s as the world inside a video game is to the world inside a Shirley Temple movie.  Things have changed.  And we need to change too to survive and thrive in the future.

readyplayerone-tributeposter-highres-breakfastclub-1520373880 There’s probably little hope left for me to make the massive adaptations facing the people of the near future.  I try to get rewired and ready.  I bought a new mouse today make the writing of this post possible.  But I have little doubt that my children will be up to the task.

This is a movie review.  And I think it is clear that I am suggesting you should see it.  I never write reviews on movies I don’t like.  And I liked this one immensely.  But don’t let my opinion sway you.  This is a movie you really have to experience for yourself.

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