All posts by sleeplessdave

I love to write, and I love all things geek: movies, TV, comics, and more. Stories provide an escape from this increasingly loathsome world. In my site and my writing I try to celebrate the worlds that allow us to escape: from the shores of Middle-Earth, to atop The Wall and Castle Black, to the bridge of the USS Enterprise, and to a galaxy far, far away.

My Favorite Scene: Avatar (2009) “The Hallelujah Mountains”

There was a time, not so long ago, when people went to the movies to see something they’d never seen before. A quarter-century into the era of CGI, it feels like almost everything has been done. Big films have thousands of VFX shots, and while the quality of them has definitely increased exponentially, the quantity is such that it’s hard to remember the last time I sat in a theater utterly gobsmacked by what was on the screen and wondered how in the world the filmmaker accomplished it. James Cameron doesn’t make a whole lot of movies, but when he does, you know he’s going to push the envelope. He loves break ground, be it The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Titanic, if Cameron is making a film, he’s out to smack the gobs of his audience and show them something new. Love it or hate it, you can’t argue he didn’t make Avatar awfully pretty to look at.

As Avatar near’s it’s 10th anniversary, its legacy is a bit of a mixed bag. The film remains the all-time box office champion globally with $2.71 billion. The film was largely hailed by critics, was nominated for 9 Oscars and won three (Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Art Direction), and is responsible for 3D technology being slapped on to every big film that’s come out in its wake. Avatar and 3D are linked, and the film, like Gravity and IMAX, is so heavily dependent on being seen in the most cutting edge way on the biggest screen possible that it loses a lot in most home theaters. And unlike Gravity, Avatar is working with the other Cameron trademark: really dicey dialogue. We are talking about a film whose plot centers around the battle for control of a resource named “Unobtanium”. You don’t watch Avatar for the script. You watch it because the film is gorgeous.

Cameron developed Avatar for 15 years before he brought it to the screen, and it’s an impressive bit of world-building. It’s a visually-arresting, layered biosphere that still holds up as some of the nicest eye candy that’s ever landed in a cinema. My favorite bit of that eye candy is The Hallelujah Mountains. First introduced in a great fly-by sequence, the floating mountains (which Cameron modeled after a Chinese rain forest) are given a three-minute showcase on the way to the banshee scene. That bit of FX exposition, which contains almost no real elements, is my favorite bit of the film. I have seen, at this point in my life, easily 10,000 movies and if one manages to leave something indelible on the landscape of my imagination, that’s fantastic. Floating mountains? That’s a little corner of my personal cinematic kingdom that Avatar gets to claim, and for that reason, I’ll forgive horribly named elements and Sam Worthington’s acting and think fondly on the film in perpetuity.

My Favorite Scene: Beverly Hills Cop (1984) “Serge”

When I was 19, my friends and I invented fireball. We hollowed out a nerf football, filled it with gas, lit it on fire, and kicked it around. The goal of the game, more or less, was…Do Not Die. I mention this as a standard of comparison because when Eddie Murphy was 19, he was starring on Saturday Night Live.

People forget after Murphy’s career has bottomed out twice, that he was in the 1980s the single biggest comedy superstar of his generation. SNL would have died on the vine after the original cast left the show if Murphy had not single-handedly kept the sketch comedy show afloat. Then came 48 Hours when Murphy was 21. By the time Beverly Hills Cop came out in 1984, Murphy (a seasoned 24 years of age) was a rock star, and unlike 48 Hours, which has not aged very well, Beverly Hills Cop still stands up a quarter-century later.

The fish out of water story is a staple of comedy (and film in general), but there’s something about Detroit cop Axel Foley (Murphy) wandering around the surreal landscape of 1980s Beverly Hills that works incredibly well. The film had kicked around Hollywood for years mostly as a much more serious action film. Mickey Rourke was first offered the part. Sylvester Stallone had it for a while and had renamed the character “Axel Cobretti”. Richard Pryor, Al Pacino, and James Caan all passed on the role before it was retooled to be an action-comedy and Murphy was approached after the success of 48 Hours. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Film Musical or Comedy and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and ended up as the highest-grossing film of 1984 in the United States.

As good as Murphy is as Foley, and he’s astounding, he nearly has his movie stolen from him by a pre-Perfect Strangers Bronson Pinchot. Sometimes all someone has to do to be funny in a bit role is to just be patently absurd. There’s something about Serge’s accent that makes it impossible for me to listen to him for more than thirty seconds without losing my mind, and I’m not alone. All through the gallery scene that introduces Serge to the world, Murphy is clearly barely keeping it together. Eddie’s best scene is the classic storming of the country club, but it’s Serge that keeps me rewatching this film.

Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop.

My Favorite Scene: The Good Place Season 2 (2017) “The Trolley Problem”

The Ethical Magnificence of The Trolley Problem

I have a proposal that I think will make Philosophy 101 more palatable for all college freshman: replace the course with a binge watch of The Good Place. Now, I do understand that there are people who enjoy deep philosophical arguments. I do get that. But, by and large, those people are already collegiate philosophy professors and are, in this context, the problem. Michael Schur, the brilliant creator of both Parks & Recreation and The Good Place, is the rare example of a person who finds philosophy fascinating and not terribly serious. The Good Place disguises is with humor and an afterlife landscape that seems like the sort of thing Douglas Adams would come up with after drinking a lot of off-label cough syrup, but the show is sneakily giving its viewers a more effective philosophical education than they’re likely to find anywhere in higher education. A perfect example of this is season two’s exploration of the trolley problem.

You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track, and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option?

One of the pillars of The Good Place’s own philosophy is that anyone can change for the better. Season two, in large part, follows the journey of demon Michael (Ted Danson) as he learns more about what makes humans tick. The most hysterical example of this is when Michael plops the terminally indecisive Chidi into the middle of a real-life trolley problem and…ups the stakes. The Good Place isn’t just a good time. As it nears the end of its third season, The Good Place has become the best comedy of the decade and arguably the best show on television.

THE GOOD PLACE — “The Trolley Problem” Episode 206 — Pictured: (l-r) Kristen Bell as Eleanor, William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Ted Danson as Michael — (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

My Favorite Scene: Deadpool 2 (2018) “Deploy X-Force!”

This is a very strange time for movie mutants. With the Disney/FOX merger nearly complete, the X-franchises, which ushered in the modern age of superhero films with 2000’s X-Men, are in limbo. New Mutants and Dark Phoenix will likely wrap up the FOX-era X-Men films, and you could see Xavier and Co. in the MCU in the next three years. Where does that leave the insanely successful Deadpool franchise? That’s a really good question.

The MCU is traditionally PG-13, something that Deadpool never has been…until this Christmas. The release of Once Upon a Deadpool, essentially a PG-13 recut of Deadpool 2, may be an audition for a more family-friendly Merc With a Mouth…or it could just be a naked cash grab to squeeze just a little more money out of Deadpool 2‘s run.

Behold….X-FORCE!

One thing that is dead is the X-Force spinoff that Deadpool 2 sets up. That is a crying shame because for the problems I did have with the film (and I did like it very much overall), the introduction and execution (literally) of X-Force was the best thing about ‘Pool 2. Deadpool is at his best when he’s just allowed to be the unhinged, manic id of the Marvel Universe. It’s why the character is better off without PG-13 shackles. A huge part of Deadpool’s appeal is the anticipation that he may say or do absolutely anything at any given moment, and you lose that if you bring him down a rating level.

Glorious, glorious Peter (Rob Delaney)

If you were a comic book fan in the 1990s, you could not avoid X-Force. Rob Liefeld’s supergroup of pouty-lipped, barely-footed mutants was a sales juggernaut. They could also be…well, I don’t currently have the mental bandwidth to get into Rob Liefeld, but suffice it to say that there are few things that made me as happy and laugh as hard as watching Shatterstar’s demise. The entire sequence, from Deadpool’s open casting call, to his inspirational plane speech, to the shortest outing in super-team history is sheer brilliance. Special recognition to Brad Pitt for one of the most unexpected cameos in recent memory and to Rob Delaney’s Peter. Oh, Peter. I miss you the most, too.

My Favorite Scene: Parks and Recreation Season 3 (2011) “Lil Sebastian”

The greatest episode of television ever made about a mini-horse. Fact.

Recently I finished my umpteenth re-watch of the misadventures of the waffle-loving, mini-horse worshipping civil servants that make up the cast of Parks & Recreation. The more I think it over, the more certain I am that Parks & Rec mastermind Michael Schur (who now brings us the equally brilliant The Good Place) created the best sitcom of the last decade. Parks & Rec started off as a spiritual spin-off of The Office, borrowing that show’s fake documentary format and, like The Office, the first season is short and underwhelming.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve urged to try Parks & Rec who have flamed out after a few episodes, so if you want to start (and you should), start with season two when the show found its own voice and the brilliant ensemble began to run at full tilt.

In the times in which we currently live, there’s something unbelievably cathartic about a show heralding the positive impact the government can make in the lives of citizens. Even if you should loathe the government, the show provides the greatest comedic Libertarian ever forged in the mustachioed Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). The show is earnest and heartfelt; self-aware and smart, and nearly always hysterically goofy. I’ve written before about the show’s third season (peerless) which contains my favorite moment in the series in the brilliant “Ron’s Swivel Desk”. I have to revisit that season because it also contains my favorite running absurdity of the series: Pawnee’s rabid celeb crush on local mini-horse: Lil’ Sebastian.  I can’t decide which moment in the episode is better: the tiny equine’s introduction and Adam Scott’s utter bafflement at his co-worker’s excitement or Chris Pratt’s “5,000 Candles in the Wind” tribute at the Harvest Festival so I am including both. In the dead of winter, if you need a laugh to warm your heart, you can’t go wrong revisiting Parks & Recreation.