On Fathers Day

10 days ago, when Albert Almora Jr. drove in his first major league run, I let out with a “Way to go, rook!” and immediately bolted upright. You know how sometimes you catch yourself sounding like your dad or mom? This was more than that. It was as if he were there in the room. 

It’s more than 21 years since his passing, and I’ve missed him more acutely in the past few weeks than I have in a long time. Perhaps it’s because I keep thinking how much he would be enjoying the Cubs’ historic season. 

Or maybe it’s because, later this year, I’ll be seeing the Miami Dolphins play at home for the first time in more than 30 years. Dad used to love taking me to sit in the wheelchair section of the old Orange Bowl — right on the field. I’m sure he’s just a bit jealous of my seats in the refurbished Dolphins Stadium.

But today, in particular, I’m missing him because I see more and more of him in me every day, and I’m so grateful. He was something of a legend to those who knew him, this singing preacher man with the tenderest of hearts and the most jaw-dropping of Elvis impersonations. To have some of that essence in me is among the best gifts I could ask for.

And I totally get why Almora Jr was so adamant to have the “Jr” placed back on his jersey. It’s his way of saying, “Who I am is because of who he was.”

The 12 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, ranked

The guys over at Front Row Movie Reviews challenged listeners to rank the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and assign each a score from 0-100. Being a writer, I couldn’t let it go at that. So here’s my list with a brief explanation for each movie’s ranking in the canon.

12. The Incredible Hulk — 65
The Incredible Hulk was actually a decent movie. In fact, it’d be rated higher, except for two things: Edward Norton, who turned in a good performance, walked away from the franchise, making this movie feel disjointed from the MCU. Also, Mark Ruffalo would later make, without question, the best onscreen Banner/Hulk ever. 

11. Iron Man 2 — 70
This, IMO, was kind of a hot mess of a movie. There’s the jarring introduction of Don Cheadle as Brodie, Mickey Rourke as an okish villain who looked like he’d rather be lifting and too … many … flight suits.

10. Iron Man 3 — 71
I liked this better than some. I thought Ben Kingsley’s performance within a performance was a neat twist for those who were willing to go with it. Still, it seemed to go on and on.

9. Thor: The Dark World — 75
I’m an unabashed fan of Thor in the MCU, and this sequel didn’t disappoint. Christopher Eccleston does a baddie as well as fans would expect, and there’s some decent family drama.

8. Avengers: Age of Ultron — 80
It’s not going to be rated too low, because it’s a freaking Avengers movie. But one almost gets the feeling there’s too much going on. The other big ding against AofU: the absence of the brilliant, scene-stealing Evan Peters as Quicksilver. Damn property rights issues.

7. Captain America: The First Avenger — 84
I’ll be honest: I’m kind of meh on Cap as a superhero. He’s always seemed a little two-dimensional to me. But holy heck, this is a fun origin story. Side note: I’d really love to see a Howling Commandos flick.

6. Thor — 85
Loved it. And if I weren’t pretending to be objective, I’d have this rated higher. But I like Thor more than your average MCU fan. Anyway, the casting is spot-on, and Asgard is beautifully, breathtakingly rendered.

5.Captain America: The Winter Soldier — 88
As meh as I am on Cap as a character, this IMO is the finest MCU sequel. Indeed, it’s the first sequel that seems to totally get how to build on an original. Great action pieces. Cool story.

4.Guardians of the Galaxy — 90
This is the only MCU movie for which I was unfamiliar with the source material. As a result, I was unburdened with comparisons with the comic. It was a joy to meet the characters, and gosh dangit, what a fun flick. The sci-fi geek in me was pleased.

3.Ant-Man — 91
Perhaps a bit of a surprise here, but Ant-Man works so well because, more than any other film in the MCU, it succeeds as a plain old movie and, consequently, is accessible to comic and noncomic fans alike.

2.Iron Man — 95
Robert. Downey. Jr. Quite simply, he is the perfect actor to play Tony Stark, and Marvel couldn’t have picked a better kickoff to its grand design. Redemption story, origin story, action flick, comedy. “Iron Man” has it all, and it all works.

1.The Avengers — 96
This was the one we’d all been waiting for. And it was glorious: a full-on Comic Book Movie. The imagery enough was impressive, but oh yeah, there was the script by Joss Whedon. By the time The Hulk whipped Loki around, you could forgive Marvel fans for thinking this was as good as it would ever get. So far, it has been.

Unto us

  The Christmas story has undergone a lot of debunking in the past few years. We’ve long suspected the night of Jesus’ birth wasn’t an idyllic, snow-covered scene. We know the timing and some of the other particulars of the Christian celebration are co-opted from pagan observances. Scholars now are leaning toward the Nativity not taking place in a stable, but in a spare room – perhaps a storage space.

But the point of the story – God becoming flesh so he could dwell among us – still rings true in the hearts of believers. And the idea of an all-powerful being transforming a part of himself into the most vulnerable form possible is still as mind-blowing as ever.

My wish for you, dear reader, is the “heavenly peace” spoken of “Silent Night.” Whether or not you believe in God or Christ, one thing I’m sure we all agree on is that the world could use some peace. And with so much violence both acted out and laying just beneath the surface of a deeply divided world, we need a truly otherworldly peace.

My prayer is that you’d open a spare room in your heart for the God of peace. But even if you scoff at that notion, I urge you to be a peacemaker. Open your heart and mind to the knowledge that all of humankind is related on the basest genetic level. We’re not just neighbors – we’re family. May we all act like it.

‘The Force Awakens’ did not turn me into an 8-year-old

(SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot details for the new Star Wars movie. Do NOT read any further if you haven’t seen it.)

I really, really liked “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  I want to see it again.  But as I scroll through my social media timelines, I’m inundated with testimonies calling Episode VII a magical, life-affirming journey back to childhood.  Sadly, I didn’t experience this, and I thought blogging about it may crystallize how exactly I did feel after watching the movie.

What I liked

The new kids on the block – J.J. Abrams does a great job of introducing us to a new crop of instantly interesting characters (with one notable exception below).  John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, in particular, are immediately likeable as Finn and Rey and have already brought more charisma to their roles than Hayden Christensen or Natalie Portman ever managed in the prequels.

The oldies are goodies – Classic characters are given far more than cameos here (again, with one exception).  Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher’s Han and Leia have aged well, and their reunion has a ton of wistful warmth.  It’s a surprisingly genuine moment in a franchise that has sometimes suffered from forced relationships.  Bonus:  Chewbacca has more meaningful action than ever.

Very special effects – Let’s not even bother nominating any other films for Best Visual Effects this year.  (I actually wouldn’t be surprised by a technical category sweep.)  Abrams’ “Star Wars” is simply gorgeous to look at.  The aerial battles have weight and tremendous impact.  The creatures are fantastic.  The image of two TIE fighters silhouetted against a sunset is one of many that will stick with me.  “The Force Awakens” is just beautifully made.

A snappy plot – Abrams and scribe Lawrence Kasdan keep it simple, to our eternal gratitude.  No Trade Federation.  No blockade.  No Senate debates over division of powers.  Just parallel quests for identity and belonging set against a backdrop of good vs. evil.  Bonus for Abrams fans:  There’s no ridiculous red matter here, either – unless you count the curiously slow-moving death beams released by the Starkiller Base.

Witty dialogue, capably delivered – No one will mistake the new Star Wars for a Joss Whedon joint, but the dialogue is light years better than the petrified crap that passed for banter in the prequels.  Pick your favorite line from a dozen or more keepers; mine is “That’s not how The Force works!”

What I didn’t like

Han’s demise – Sorry folks, I’m not feeling all the feels.  For anyone who’s followed the production history of the Star Wars saga, the idea Han Solo would die in Episode VII is surely not a shocker.  For cryin’ out loud: Harrison Ford supposedly only agreed to come back to play the character with a guarantee he’d be killed.  Then there was, for me, the nigh-tortuous telegraphing that Han’s son was about to stab him in (through?) the back during their heart-to-heart on the PORTENTOUS CATWALK OF DOOM.  And yet, I got the impression Han’s death was supposed to be a big twist.  Unfortunately, any real drama had drained from the moment by the time it occurred.

Kylo Ren … – The trailers had me thinking Episode VII’s main baddie would be a badass.  Turns out, he’s more of an ass.  From his comical light saber enhanced temper tantrums to the “true face” reveal which, strangely, had me recalling Edward Cullen, the character was a complete swing and a miss for me.  If I wanted my bad guy to be a petulant child with daddy issues, I would’ve watched Thor again.  Even the murder of Han Solo comes off not as a stroke of evil, but just a general dick move.  I was disappointed Rey didn’t finish him off.

… and pretty much most of the other bad guys – Ok, Gwendolyn Christie’s Captain Phasma was pretty cool.  And the shrieky general addressing thousands of troops prior to the initial Starkiller attack on the Republic was kind of awesome in a really unhinged way.  But “Supreme Leader Snoke”?  Andy Serkis’ brilliance aside, he’s lucky Count Dooku already had the Stupidest Star Wars Name award wrapped up in perpetuity.  And how exactly does an evil collective built on the ashes of the Sith AND the Empire get away with calling itself the FIRST order?

The ending – First there was the umpteenth iteration of an epic space battle to destroy an intergalactic death machine (gorgeous though it was).  As the denouement approached, I imagine Abrams and his team were probably thinking, “We’ve got to at least show Luke Skywalker, or the fans will lose it.”  But that’s literally ALL they did, capping off what seemed like an interminable ending of Jacksonian proportions.  (My wife, upon getting her first glimpse of Mark Hamill:  “Oh look, it’s Gandalf the Grey!”)

There’s a fine line between leaving your audience wanting more and waiting for the next one.  I would have liked more of the first; I experienced more of the latter.