Culture on My Mind
(Winter 2023 Edition)
April 14, 2023
Narrative Diversions is a look at the various pop culture things I’ve been watching, reading, and playing over the last few months.
Top Gun: Maverick (2022) – PG-13
I really need to dedicate a post to my history with Top Gun. The first film and the two Nintendo games were staples of my childhood and were big influences toward joining the Navy (like most 80s kids who were recruited). Anyway, this film was a fun return to Maverick’s world with amazing realism in the flight scenes, but there were a few things that really pulled me out of the experience. The first was surviving a Mach 10 incident, which is physically impossible. The second was the absurdity of the Star Wars-style mission and the escape that followed.
Additionally, the movie does flirt with Orientalism – stereotyping based on traits and representations of the Middle East and Asia – which becomes evident in the final act when Maverick and Rooster end up stealing an F-14 from the foreign power that Maverick’s team just attacked. The film goes to great lengths to avoid identifying the enemy who is enriching nuclear material, but it’s fairly easy to determine that the screenwriters are pointing toward states like India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. Interestingly, Iran is the only one that currently operates F-14s. At least the screenwriters didn’t take the approach of making up a country with a -stan suffix on the end of the name, but they come awfully close to categorizing everyone in that region as an enemy.
Otherwise, like the first film, it was a fun popcorn action flick that I’ll easily watch again.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022) – PG
Video game movies have historically been hard to pull off. The genre as we know it debuted with 1993’s Super Mario Bros. but has had a lot of trouble finding success until the last few years with Werewolves Within, the Angry Birds films, Detective Pikachu, Warcraft, Rampage, Uncharted, and the Sonic the Hedgehog films.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a critical and financial success, and it’s easy to see why. The first entry came out swinging for the fences with a ridiculously fun story and over-the-top performances, and the sequel did the same with obvious improvements in the special effects. If my young nieces and nephews are any indication, these movies both hit the mark with their target audience.
I’ll definitely be back for the third film.
The School for Good and Evil (2022) – PG-13 [Netflix]
This one was a ridiculous romp that played with the whole library of fantasy and fairy tale tropes. It was apparently adapted from a novel of the same name, and while the cast and visuals were good, the storytelling was all over the place. The movie doesn’t really inspire me to pick up the book series.
It’s worth a look if you have kids who love fantasy and fairy tales, though the nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime might be a deal killer.
She Said (2022) – R
A tough story to watch for sure, but necessary in this day and age. The story did meander a bit but I understand why given how difficult it was for Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey to uncover the details behind it. I have a lot of respect for their dedication.
I get that audiences didn’t want to revisit the scandals – especially people who think that #MeToo is overblown, that the victims have nothing to complain about, and that HW didn’t do anything wrong – but I’m hopeful that this film will take an important place in history as a chronicle of how and when things changed for the better in Hollywood.
Jurassic World: Dominion (2022) – PG
The first Jurassic Park was revolutionary. It was also the second movie that I saw in theaters. (The first was a re-release of Song of the South in the mid-80s.) Every sequel since has been a monster movie with a substantial budget, and while I enjoy watching the lizards eating hapless humans who don’t understand the Pandora’s box that they opened, none of them has reached the heights of the original.
This one was fun in parts, sluggish in others, and highly dependent on knowing what happened in the previous two Jurassic World entries. It was great to see the original trio back in action, though I would have also loved to see Joseph Mazzello (Tim) and Ariana Richards (Lex) back for even a quick cameo.
But, yeah… it’s apparent that the franchise has run out of creative steam. This is a good enough place to leave it.
Pinocchio (2022) – PG
In general, I have enjoyed the live-action versions of Disney’s animated classics. My favorites so far are 2016’s Jungle Book, 2019’s Aladdin, and 2019’s The Lion King. I also sing the praises of 2018’s Christopher Robin, though it’s not really a live-action remake. The rest of the crop have been okay, though Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella have stood out in that range.
Pinocchio was just bad. It was missing the soul of the 1940 film, and though the visuals and music were good, not even Tom Hanks could keep me engaged. Skip it.
Jungle Cruise (2021) – PG-13
It seemed like an absurd premise when it was announced. It ended up being a fun popcorn flick in the end. The writers were sure to knock out a ton of the jokes inherent to the Disney Parks ride within the first few minutes so that they could then settle into the story they wanted to tell.
With a two-hour runtime, it does lag a little in the middle and ends up being predictable, but Jungle Cruise is still a fun time.
Secret Society of Second Born Royals (2020) – TV-PG [Disney+]
In this story’s fictional European-styled kingdom, the first-born royal children get trained to be monarchs while the second-born royal children get superpowers. When those powers begin to manifest, the second-borns go off to a fancy school to learn how to become international secret agents.
The young actors do their best to carry the clichéd plot, but it starts to wear quickly. If you’ve got 100 minutes to kill, give it a shot.
Let’s Dance (2019) – TV-MA [Netflix]
Following the new Netflix trend of dance crew movies, this French comedy-drama is an exercise in the genre’s clichés. It kept part my attention while I worked on some other tasks. The highlight for me was the clever mix of classical music with dance music at the story’s climax.
Casablanca (1942) – PG
Believe it or not, I had not seen this classic before February 2023. It’s been on my list, but I just had not gotten to it. You can credit Mike Faber of The ESO Network for helping me to finally check this one off.
And it was worth every second. It easily earns its status as a classic film, and I was amazed at just how vibrant Ingrid Bergman was in every frame. Just amazing.
The Sound of 007 (2022) – NR [Amazon Prime]
This was a wonderful documentary on the history of music in the James Bond franchise, from Dr. No to No Time to Die. It’s definitely worth the watch.
Starring Adam West (2013) – NR [Amazon Prime]
An engaging biographical documentary about the life of Adam West. It was made four years before his death and is framed by the quest of his family and friends to get his name enshrined on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His energy and humor saturate the biopic and I enjoyed the experience.
Your Place or Mine (2023) – PG-13 [Netflix]
This is a pretty standard romantic comedy, but it stays engaging due to chemistry of Aline Brosh McKenna’s writing and direction combined with the acting of Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher. It starts with the main characters being close friends of many years who can pretty much finish each other’s sentences, and the questioning of that relationship within the first few minutes prompted me to blurt a truth out loud: Men and women can be friends without having sex.
I wish that’s where the movie had landed at the end, but the romcom formula demands a different resolution. Otherwise, I had fun with a lot of laughs.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) – PG-13
Ant-Man is one of those Marvel characters that keeps surprising me. When the 2015 film was announced, I was skeptical and had low expectations, but wanted to see what Marvel had to offer because of what they had done with their cinematic universe since 2008.
Quantumania continues the tradition. It’s a haphazard yet fun movie, opening our eyes to a new world of exploration. My biggest complaint is that an Ant-Man and the Wasp film has not enough of the Wasp. Of course, they could have been counting the original Wasp since Michelle Pfeiffer really dominates the Pym/Van Dyne side of the script.
I liked this one a lot more than Eternals and Thor: Love and Thunder. It was fun.
The Miracle Season (2018) – PG
If you’re a fan of the “based on a true story” genre, you may have a good time with this one. It’s apparently pretty close to the real events and deals with grief and pressure quite well. It stars Erin Moriarty, Helen Hunt, and William Hurt, which is a great acting lineup, and I was also quite impressed with the direction and cinematography for what is essentially a Hallmark-style film. It’s a touching 99 minutes.
The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window [Netflix]
This 8-episode series is a straight-up parody of the Lifetime-style suspense/horror movie genre. It yo-yos between slapstick absurdity and legitimate whodunit mystery, and Kristen Bell really sells the silly. Don’t set your expectations too high, but I found it worth the three and a half hours for her comedic talents alone.
The Last of Us – Season 1 [HBO]
Remember what I said about video game adaptations? If the game is anyway near as good as this 10-episode series, I need to buy it yesterday. Every episode was an exercise in character development and motivations, and I cried during a lot of them. The “last of us” means the last of humanity as a global pandemic threatens to end our species. This series is telling human stories, and it does the apocalypse far better than The Walking Dead ever dreamed.
It also reinforces my viewpoint that adaptations do not need to be one-for-one carbon copies of the video game experience. If I want the original video game, comic, or book, I’ll go experience that. If I want another perspective on the universe of those publications, I’ll take the adaptation.
If this season had been all about taking out zombies with headshots, it would have been yet another boring gun-toting macho orgasm drowning in blood and brains. Or, like The Walking Dead, a prolonged period of drudgery and character torture without an endgame. Instead, we get legit drama and suspense, and I’m all for it.
Star Wars: The Bad Batch – Season 2 [Disney+]
Season 1 of this show portrayed a galaxy in flux and explored how the collapsed Republic’s clone army fit into the nascent Empire. Soldiers who didn’t follow orders were cast aside while those who did lived as best they could under the iron Imperial grip.
Season 2 brought me a start to a discussion I have wanted to see. How do the clones fit into a galaxy that no longer wants them? How are clones who executed Order 66 seen in public and amongst their peers? How do those who regret their actions cope with what they did? How will the clone army live without a primary purpose?
This season has made me question how I look at the clone army in light of Order 66 and the concept that “good soldiers follow orders.” Philosophical meat like this is one big thing that I love about Star Wars. Watching Omega grow up in this trying time and exploring the secret science of cloning under the Empire’s control are bonuses, and that season finale is… wow.
The Night Agent [Netflix]
I like a good political thriller and this one kept me engaged for the most part. It works in the spirit of 24, pitting an unlikely protagonist with baggage and wits against terrorists and corrupt politicians who will do very bad things in a very short time. There’s nothing new here, and ten episodes went by at a decent enough pace. I think it wrapped up well enough that we don’t need any more seasons, especially since the original source material was a single novel. There’s no need to expand this into several seasons.
(Apparently, Netflix and Sony Pictures Television think differently: ‘Night Agent’ Renewed for Season 2 at Netflix)
Star Trek: The Eugenics Wars – The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, Volume 1 – Greg Cox
Star Trek: The Eugenics Wars – The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, Volume 2 – Greg Cox
Star Trek: To Reign in Hell – The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh – Greg Cox
This trilogy of books was really well done. The first two focus heavily on the events surrounding the Eugenics Wars and the life of Khan, and they include the adventures of Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln. They are the “Assignment: Earth” spinoff that I have wanted to see for a long time.
The third book spans the years between “Space Seed” and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with a framing story that sees Kirk, Spock, and McCoy exploring the remnants of Khan’s encampment on Ceti Alpha V. I didn’t like it as much, though the events as Khan’s new civilization tries to survive were far superior to the framing story.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Volume 1 – A Survivor’s Tale – Art Spiegelman
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Volume 2 – And Here My Troubles Began – Art Spiegelman
This is a tough one to get through. It’s a real story about real people who survived the Holocaust, and it’s hard sometimes to think about how monstrous people can be sometimes. I laughed, I cried, and I resolved once again to ban fascists instead of banning books. This story needs to be read and comprehended far and wide.
DC: The New Frontier, Volume 1 – Darwyn Cooke
DC: The New Frontier, Volume 2 – Darwyn Cooke
A fascinating look at the DC Universe in the post-World War II era. It’s a world that still needs heroes, but one where living as one without a secret identity is a crime. It’s also a world without unity among the heroes, including hidden agendas and dueling ideologies. It’s a well-done tale that I really liked once I got into it.
Star Trek: The Stardate Collection, Volume 1 – The Early Voyages – edited by David Tipton and Scott Tipton
Star Trek: The Stardate Collection, Volume 2 – Under the Command of Christopher Pike – edited by David Tipton and Scott Tipton
A fun collection of titles from IDW Publishing. I especially enjoyed the adventures of Captain Pike on the Enterprise, though I was sad to see how the line ends with a cliffhanger.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Death in Winter – Michael Jan Friedman
I wasn’t a big fan of this one. It’s a quick read and is definitely an interlude that transitions the Star Trek novel universe from the crew-shattering events of Star Trek: Nemesis to the continuing adventures between the pages, but the scenarios never really allow the characters to gel together. Picard pines for Crusher, Crusher spends the majority of the story as an injured prisoner, and Worf and La Forge (the last remaining Enterprise crewmembers) are sidelined.
I also haven’t read anything with the original Stargazer crew since 1991’s Reunion, so I have very little to connect me to the characters of Pug and Greyhorse.
Star Trek: Enterprise – The Romulan War: Beneath the Raptor’s Wing – Michael A. Martin
Star Trek: Enterprise – The Romulan War: To Brave the Storm – Michael A. Martin
I really enjoyed this duology, particularly with the complicated character growth and vignettes that highlighted random crews and troopers in the depths of war. The one big complaint that I had was this story’s reliance on previous novels – Star Trek: Enterprise – Kobayashi Maru, specifically – but that’s the downside to reading event novels in the middle of serial runs.
Star Trek: Voyager – Homecoming – Christie Golden
Star Trek: Voyager – The Farther Shore – Christie Golden
This set is complicated for me. Overall, I like the story, but it bothers me that the first book is not marketed as the first part of a two-part story. The result is frustrating when you reach the end of book one with no resolution to the plot.
The story does open some interesting narrative doors and made me think about a few sci-fi concepts. It does briefly touch on the fact that Voyager was away for seven years experiencing some strange new worlds exploration while the Federation went through the Dominion War, and how alien the post-war Federation is to this crew. It also tries to play with a few Trek tropes to make you think you know what’s going on before pulling the rug from under your feet. But I don’t buy the motivations for the story’s main villain who, according to the flashback vignettes, does bad things because of a very traumatic childhood. The final resolution was also a bit too quick, opting for a fast shoot-em-up to tie everything off.
Worth the read? Yeah, but it really wasn’t the story I had hoped for to chronicle Voyager‘s homecoming.
Reads in progress:
- The President’s Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (43%)
- The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (32%)
I have also started re-reading the original Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn. I haven’t read these since they came out in the 1990s but I remember absolutely loving them.
Hadestown – Broadway in Atlanta
I went into this one completely blind. It was beautiful, but my heart soared once I saw that it was a modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It also made the climax that much more tragic because I knew what was coming. It’s a wonderfully done adaptation.
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical – Broadway in Atlanta
I’m familiar with Tina Turner’s story within my lifetime, but I had no idea how tragic her childhood was. Those early years were difficult to watch in this dramatization of her life story, and Ike Turner’s introduction was chilling because I know how bad of a person he was in their relationship. The music was awesome and the lead actor at our show was pitch perfect in her shoes.
If you go to this one – and you absolutely should! – stay through the final curtain call. Trust me, the finale is well worth it.
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Nintendo Switch
I’ve been playing this here and there when I have time to devote to it. It is one that I missed upon initial release, and this remaster makes me hope that Nintendo has plans for future remasters. Especially Twilight Princess. I have just assembled the Triforce and have to pursue Ghirahim toward the final confrontation.
I’m also patiently waiting for Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom to release.
Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.
For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.