One More Time

Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can … and apparently, that includes taking another swing through movie theaters.

Yeah, the webhead’s back for Labor Day, sending his most recent installment, “No Way Home,” back onto the big screen. Inevitably, it’s an extended edition – always gotta offer more, right? – but at heart, it dusts off an unfamiliar word: re-release.

(Enter Obi-Wan Kenobi: “Now that’s a word I’ve not heard in a long time. A long time.”)

I know, I know. These days, it seems like every movie we see is a sequel or a re-boot of some kind, a tradition that goes back to the earliest days of the industry. “The Wizard of Oz” from 1939 that we all know and love, for example,  was the third version of L. Frank Baum’s children’s story to hit the screen and the 10th Oz film of any kind. Ding-dong, the story’s never dead!

But the re-release was already starting to become a thing of the past in the age of VCRs, never mind a time of streaming, DVD and Blu-ray options. Why send “Star Wars” back through first-run theaters for the umpty-umpth time when you can make money from home viewing and save the big screens for your new stuff?

But of course, when you change the setting, you change the story a little bit as well. Take a movie you’ve seen a thousand times at home, one that you could quote blindfolded. Put it back on the big screen for even one night. You’ll see details that escaped attention, feel the impact of a story in its intended scale … and of the people around you discovering the same thing.

It’s a chance to truly re-read the story.

And I love a good re-read.

As I’ve mentioned before, our home has enough books to qualify as the North Longmont branch of the public library. At any given time, I may be reading half a dozen at once … and of those, it’s almost a guarantee that one or two will be re-reads.

Every so often, someone will ask me why. After all, there’s a ton of new stuff to catch up on. (Heck, there’s a ton of new stuff to catch up on just in the living room.) Why plunge back into a story you already know?

But for me, and for the many other inveterate re-readers out there, it’s not just a rehash. It’s more like visiting an old friend.

There’s comfort in coming back to a loved story, as you not only revive favorite scenes and characters, but re-awaken how you felt when you met them.

There’s discovery, too. Some of my favorite books continue to reveal new details every time I open the covers. It might be something I’d forgotten or overlooked – or simply that I’ve changed enough to see the old material in a new way.  

There’s the joy of introducing someone new to a favorite. Watching Missy discover Bilbo Baggins and Harry Potter during nighttime reads enhanced the magic (so to speak) for both of us. And now that we both know the tales well, our re-reads strengthen that family bond.

It’s a good approach to life in general. Sure, one should always be ready to explore new trails. But there’s still value to be found in the roads that brought you here. Old lessons still matter. Old memories can still grant assurance. And past joys can still bring light in a dark time.

So take a moment to look back. It might be just what you need when life is driving you up the wall.

And if you meet a certain wall-crawler up there .. say hi for me, will you?

Lost Treasure

There’s no pile of riches. No treasure map. Certainly no One-Eyed Willie. But shiver me timbers if “The Goonies” didn’t actually have a glimmer of truth to it.

In case you missed the news, National Geographic recently reported that a dozen timbers from a 17th-century Spanish galleon – the Santo Cristo de Burgos – were found off the Oregon coast. That by itself would be pretty cool since the ship had disappeared after leaving the Philippines in 1693.

But the news coverage exploded thanks to a Hollywood connection. Tales of the shipwreck survived among the Native Americans, with later settlers spinning off legends of sunken treasure. Those in turn inspired Steven Spielberg to make “The Goonies,” the 1980s movie about children hunting pirate gold.

Confession time: I’m not a huge Goonies fan, which will probably cost me my “Child of the ‘80s” geek cred. But the connection between a 1690s ship and a 1980s film fascinates me.

You see, in the words of a young Sean Astin, “Goonies never say die!” And apparently, neither do stories.

In a day when so much can be researched, pinned down and verified, it’s easy to forget that stories have a life of their own. They’re strands of memory that defy the line between fact and fiction, often taking a seed of reality and spinning it into something unforgettable.

But as the legends and myths and heroes rise, the piece that started it all becomes a buried treasure:  lost, forgotten, maybe even denied to exist. Was there a British war leader that set the tales of King Arthur in motion? Or a highway robber with a sense of style that kindled later legends of Robin Hood? Even in less time, it’s easy for memory to change to make a better story: the psychologist Ulric Neisser famously told how he remembered hearing of Pearl Harbor attack during a radio baseball game , only to realize decades later that no one plays baseball in December.

So when the treasure of truth suddenly reappears, it’s almost magical. You can start to see how the story began and what grew from it, making both a little more wonderful. It might be the ancient city of Troy, rescued from mythical status by a 19th-century archaeologist. It might be the Santo Cristo, giving reality to a vessel that had long sailed the imagination.

And years, decades, centuries from now … it might even be us.

We live our stories now. Each of us shares and shapes memory, building our perceptions of the world into a personal tale that  explains the world around us. And even in our own lifetimes, we see those stories evolve and collide and change … though we don’t always realize how much they’ve changed until we find ourselves struggling with an inconvenient fact that doesn’t fit the narrative.

When our own time has passed, how much more will those stories transform?

It’s a little humbling to consider. And yet, it can be comforting as well. Even if our copious records become lost or meaningless to a far-future generation, something inspired by us may still fire the imagination and grow beyond what we can see.

And maybe, just maybe, some timbers of truth will wash onto the shore.

Or does that sound a little Goonie?

Ark of Recovery

Don’t look now but we just beat the Raiders.

No, not those Raiders. Even for the wandering brethren of Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland-Las Vegas, it would take some doing to lose a football game one month before the NFL preseason even started. (Of course, it may also take some doing for the Broncos to win a game after it starts, but let’s allow ourselves to dream, OK?)

No, I’m talking about the Raiders from everyone’s favorite 40-year-old action film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the breathless adventure where Indiana Jones recreates the thrills, spills and chills of the 1930s serial cliffhanger movies … and, famously, doesn’t accomplish a whole lot else.

The argument’s been made across the internet (not to mention one episode of The Big Bang Theory), so I’ll be brief. By the end of the movie, the Nazis have been destroyed by their own arrogance. Their plan went on pretty much the way it would have without Dr. Jones – in fact, he may have sped it up slightly by showing them the Ark’s true resting place – but it just happened to be a bad plan that was always going to kill them.

For Indy, the adventure’s main significance is in the changes it made in him personally. And since he’s an ‘80s action-movie star, even those aren’t guaranteed to be carried over to the next film.  He did a lot of running. A lot of fighting. And it didn’t make much difference.

That’s where we’ve got the edge.

We know we’ve made a difference. And that we can continue to.

Colorado recently ended its official state of emergency, a crisis condition that’s extended over 16 months, a lot of executive orders, and more than a few fogged-up glasses from habitual face-masking. Worldwide, the pandemic isn’t over by a long shot and even in this country, there’s still a lot of concern about what the delta variant of COVID-19 may mean for the immediate future. But at this time, and in this place, we’ve done a lot.

We went from one of the worst coronavirus fatality rates west of the Mississippi to one of the 10 best states in the nation.

We’ve gotten an awful lot of us vaccinated – at the time I write this, more than 70 percent of our adults have had at least one shot and nearly 64 percent have been fully immunized.

Most of all, we’ve been finding ways to help our neighbor and try to keep life going even when it’s been at its weirdest.

We’re living life differently these days – new habits, new priorities, maybe even new perspectives shaped by what we’ve gone through. And unlike a Hollywood film, normal isn’t a matter of rebuilding the sets and restoring the status quo. Some of what we’ve learned will stay with us. It might be big changes in how and where we work or small pastimes that we got hooked on while living apart, but it’ll be there.

We’ve changed.

Hopefully, that means we’ve grown as well.

I don’t want to be too dramatic. Plenty of pre-pandemic stuff has survived as well (including, to my own surprise, the handshake). The world’s not completely unrecognizable, like some sort of Rip Van Winkle tale. But we have an opportunity to carry lessons forward. We’ve seen the impact our actions can have on others and we have a chance to learn from that.

Let’s face it: this movie doesn’t need a sequel.

After all, why settle for keeping up with the Joneses?  

Gee, Thanks

Written Nov. 23, 2019

The film critic Roger Ebert once noted that if you want to show a family coming together, you set a movie at Christmas – and if you want to show it falling apart, you set it at Thanksgiving.

If you’re nodding along, I can’t say I blame you.

On the surface, Thanksgiving is one of the most wonderful holidays there is. It doesn’t shout and try to sell you a million things, it doesn’t involve recreational explosives or hastily-ordered last-minute floral bouquets . All it asks is that we appreciate what we have, eat, spend time together, and maybe watch some mediocre football before trying to remember the box of house lights is. I mean, there’s even a Charlie Brown special!

And yet … we know better.

Heather and I have had several Thanksgivings where one of her chronic illnesses suddenly switched into overdrive, canceling a plan to visit friends or family.

Or where something vital broke down at the holiday (a computer, the plumbing, our last nerve), adding that much extra delay before repairing.

Or when we received staggering news, like the fact that our much-missed Duchess the Wonder Dog had cancer and maybe a month or two left to live. (She passed a few days after New Year’s.)

And for many, that family togetherness can be more stressful than recuperative. Maybe feelings are still simmering a few weeks (or years) after an election. Maybe it’s the annual debate about which family “gets” Thanksgiving and which gets Christmas. Or maybe there’s an empty chair at the table that won’t be filled this year – or at all.

Whatever the reason, sometimes it feels like the universe is conspiring to turn a moment of “Thank you” into “Gee, thanks.” That stress and crisis are natural companions to the stuffing and can-shaped cranberry sauce.

I get it. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it.

And yet.

We know the ideal: that Thanksgiving is a space apart from crisis, or to celebrate having surmounted one. (OK, I’m laughing, too.) But the real is no less powerful – that it can be a space in the midst of crisis. Maybe even one that crisis throws into stark relief.

When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving holiday, the country was in the midst of civil war. He neither denied it nor ignored it. But he did note how, even in the worst moment of the nation’s history, the country was still growing, still abundant, still at peace on foreign fronts, and (outside the Southern battlefields) still upholding the essential work of being a nation. Great wounds needed healing, but there was still much to be grateful for.

Maybe that’s true on a smaller scale than a civil war.

Our “illness Thanksgivings” turned into one of our favorite stories, about how Domino’s pizza started becoming the centerpiece meal instead of turkey.

Our own empty chairs (and collar) have given us occasion to hold loving memories close again and remember the wonderful lives that touched our own.

Our stresses have remained real – but with something beyond the emergency of the moment that lasts. Maybe even something summoned by the crisis, the way that a community comes together in times of flood or blizzard.

“Forget your perfect offering,” Leonard Cohen once sung. “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”

I’m not saying Thanksgiving has to be stressful to be special. But the stress doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

We can still find the space. Maybe a weary one. Maybe a painful one. But still a chance to look within and look without, and find something still standing. Some light in the crack that reaches us, or that we can reach toward.

That’s worth a bit of gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.

Want to go take in a movie?

Double-0 My!

As the first flakes of Longmont’s snow season crept to the ground, Leroy Brown stood ready for action.

That may sound a little incongruous for Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, the ace child detective of Idaville (as opposed to Jim Croce’s ill-fated gambler). But for our new-ish brown Hyundai of the same name, its moment had clearly arrived. The heater roared. The engine hummed. And the newly-attached license plate declared its tough-guy status to the world.

Or at least, the last three digits of said license plate.

Leroy Brown was now agent 009.

As you might imagine, the prospect of our car now being part of the British Secret Service has inspired much hilarity from friends and family, especially when we all considered whether the Q Branch Option Package might be installed. (For the record, there’s no smoke screen and no oil slick, which probably wouldn’t pass emissions tests in Colorado, anyway.) But among the shared laughter, one friend introduced a note of reality – well, cinematic reality, anyway.

“As I recall, 009 suffers an unenviable fate in the Bond canon …”

Hmm.

For those who aren’t deeply familiar with the series, the James Bond movies do have an agent 009. A few, in fact, but the one who gets the most screen time appears in the opening minutes of “Octopussy,” fleeing an East Berlin circus in a clown suit while chased by a pair of knife-throwing twins. (You kind of had to be there.) Fighting back hard against his pursuers, he’s mortally wounded and knocked into a river … but still survives long enough to stagger to the British Embassy and deliver, with his dying breath, the Faberge’ egg that kicks off the rest of the plot.

So, OK, you could argue that it’s an ill-omened number.  But I liked it better than ever.

This was a double-0 agent to identify with.

Everyone knows James Bond, agent 007, the handsome expert on a dozen plot-relevant subjects, who makes the ladies swoon and always has the right gadget to get out of a tough situation. Bond walks through life with expensive clothes, expensive cars, and a plot armor that guarantees he’ll always come out on top in the end, even if many of his lovers and associates aren’t so lucky.

That’s not most of us.

Most of us, I suspect, are a little closer to 009. Struggling against situations that we’re not really prepared for. Having to constantly keep moving to keep from being overwhelmed. Fearing that one mistake or bit of bad luck will bring everything crashing down. Maybe even feeling a little ridiculous while doing it.

And yet, still doing what we need to do, with everything we’ve got in us.

That, too, is a hero. Much more of one than Commander Bond, in fact.

And it’s a heroism we see every day.

Maybe it’s holding a life together in the face of physical or mental challenges … or a family together with finances and nerves strained to the limit … or facing the world while the heart quietly screams for someone who’s been lost. It may be any of a million other situations – the details are personal, individual, private.

But the strength shown is one that speaks to us all.

So Leroy Brown, agent 009? Absolutely. In fact, it’s an honor, one that I’m happy to carry on behalf of all the 009s out there.

It’s a bond. Universal bond.

The Princess Riot

The roar of indignation echoed across the internet.

“What do you MEAN, they’re remaking ‘The Princess Bride?’ ”

To be fair to Hollywood – probably not. The whole mess started with an off-hand comment by a Sony CEO that some “very famous people” wanted to take another crack at the 1987 family favorite. There’s been no official announcement since. Indeed, the only word of any kind since then seems to have been an unnamed USA Today source confirming that Sony has no plans to touch the film.

No surprise. If Sony meant to test the waters, the studio quickly found them full of Screaming Eels. In a world where we seem to grow ever more divided, EVERYBODY from ordinary fans to stars of the film to prominent political figures closed ranks to defend the movie. And since ‘The Princess Bride’ is one of the most quotable movies ever made, everyone had a chance to tweet one of their favorite lines as part of the resistance:

 

“There’s a shortage of perfect movies in this world. It would be a pity to damage this one.” – Cary Elwes

 

“NOOOOOOOO!!!!!! Sonny, The Princess Bride is the greatest thing, in the world—except for a nice MLT, mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that. DON’T MESS WITH PERFECTION.” – Sen. Ted Cruz

 

“INCONCEIVABLE!!” – Half the internet, simultaneously

 

The only thing missing was Inigo Montoya drawing his sword and making his famous introduction … oops, no wait, there it is in a meme. We’re good.

It’s heartwarming, of course, to see people defending a story, especially this one. This was William Goldman’s favorite novel and screenplay, one that made it to the screen against tremendous odds. It spent over a decade in “development hell,” with many studios convinced it was unfilmable. Its initial release came and went with barely a ripple, since the marketing department didn’t know what to do with it – was it a romance, a fantasy, a comedy, what?

Home video saved it and made it an icon. Small wonder. A fairy tale that both celebrated and mocked its own roots, a story with swashbuckling action and tongue-in-cheek wit, a movie that could wholeheartedly embrace true love (or is it “twoo wuv?) while also quoting “Life is pain, princess; anyone who says differently is selling you something” – what’s not to like?

Or more to the point, what’s to remake?

Hollywood, of course, loves the remake and the reboot. It’s the safe choice, with a built-in audience. And it works more often than we think. “The Wizard of Oz” with Judy Garland was the second feature film on the subject. So was Charlton Heston’s “Ben-Hur.” “The Magnificent Seven” was a resetting of “The Seven Samurai,” while the comedy “Airplane!” took the script of “Zero Hour!” almost word-for-word.

But in each of those cases, there was something new to be brought to the mix. A different tone or  genre, or a new take by an actor or director, or new technology to better capture the story. If all you’re doing is retreading the same ground, you might as well just re-release the film and have done with it. You’re not going to take it anywhere new – and you might well make it worse.

You don’t have to be Hollywood to understand that. Most of us know what it’s like. We get in ruts. We make the same decisions over and over. Sometimes they’re good decisions that became merely comfortable ones. Sometimes they’re Charlie Brown’s football, promising over and over again that THIS time it will work.

Deep down, we know we have to explore and grow. That’s why our best stories take someone beyond the comfortable and force them to change. The reckless and rootless Huckleberry Finn learns maturity and the worth of a man. The stay-at-home Bilbo Baggins learns confidence and an appreciation of the wider world.

And yes, the farm boy Westley remakes himself into the hero his love needs him to be – and learns that even the most competent hero can’t do it alone.

Remaking movies can be tedium. But remaking lives is essential. What lives, grows.

Anything else is simply inconceivable.

The Game’s Up

Fantasy football draft weekends have certain rituals that cannot be avoided. Keep the sports magazines close at hand. Test the connection to the draft website. Make sure the caffeine is well-charged.

And this year, there’s one added  detail. Cross Andrew Luck off the quarterback list.

If you’ve paid even one scintilla of attention to the sports world lately, you know what I’m talking about. Luck, the highly-talented and often-battered 29-year-old quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts finally decided that he had taken one injury too many and retired.

“It’s taken the joy out of the game,” he acknowledged in a hasty press conference about a week ago.

The decision drew boos from the fans in the stands. No surprise. Fans are notorious for calling on players to tough it out and earn their paycheck. Players with a history of frequent injuries often get wisecracks rather than sympathy (I still remember Chris Chandler becoming “Crystal Chandelier”) and musings on how the old school would have kept going with one leg and no arms, uphill, through a snowstorm, both ways.

Players know better. They should. They’re the ones who take the shots, who have to decide how much pain is enough.

All for the game. You know, that thing that’s supposed to be fun?

If there’s no joy in a game, why are you playing it? Whatever the score, you yourself are bound to lose.

Oddly, that’s when my mind went back to the 1980s. No, not to the horrific Joe Theismann injury. To Matthew Broderick.

Some of you may remember the film War Games, about a teenager who accidentally hacks into NORAD’s supercomputer and nearly triggers World War III. The final scenes are well known, where the computer runs scenario after scenario of global thermonuclear war – from the most predictable strategies to the least likely incidents – and comes up with the same result every time: No winner.

“A strange game,” the computer concludes. “The only winning move is not to play.”

In short, the computer had to be taught the concept of futility. That some games cannot be won. That some battles have to be walked away from rather than fought.

It doesn’t take a silicon genius to learn that. Or an NFL superstar.

In fact, if you have any kind of chronic illness – physical or mental – you likely have learned that constantly.

Regular readers may remember that my wife Heather has a number of chronic illnesses. The list includes Crohn’s disease, MS, and ankylosing spondylitis (the last of which is guaranteed to crash any spell-checker on the planet). She’s accomplished a lot despite all that, including being a wonderful mom to our disabled ward Missy.

But she has to pick her battles.

It took me a while to learn that as a young husband. Like a lot of people – including a few football fans – I thought that if you pushed hard enough, you could make anything happen. That disappointment would only make matters worse.

I know better. A lot better.

Sometimes all the effort does is leave you in the same situation, but with less energy and more pain.

You have to know when the game is worth playing.

This isn’t a recipe for despair. For me, hope is one of the most powerful virtues there is, and hope requires work and commitment to be more than just vague optimism. But hope needs to be paired with judgment.

And if the judgment is that you’re starting a chess game with just three pawns, one king, and a knight, then you’re better off leaving the board and looking for a deck of cards.

So you have my best wishes, Mr. Luck. May you find joy in the path ahead.

And since you’re free – have you got any good fantasy football tips?

Feeling the Force

One thing about visiting a galaxy far, far away. It makes bedtime far, far easier.

“Did you have a good time?”

A vigorous nod came in reply.

Missy’s smile was a mile wide as I pulled up the covers. No surprise. What she loves, she loves without reservation. And when it comes to Star Wars, the passion of our developmentally disabled ward  reaches a force (or even a Force) that would astound George Lucas himself. Just a glimpse of R2-D2, or the mighty Chewbacca, or (especially) Darth Vader is sure to mean a quick tug on my sleeve and a cry of “Da’y, look!”

And so, when the chance came to see it on the big screen, courtesy of a local theater, Heather and I had the same thought: “I have a good feeling about this.”

Needless to say, Missy was in heaven. She laughed, she cheered, she gave huge cries of “whoooooa!” at suitably big moments. Sitting still isn’t always easy for her, and her devotion didn’t entirely change that, but most of the motion was either bouncing with excitement, or turning around in her seat every so often to see if everyone else was having as much fun as she was.

She needn’t have worried. The audience was held in a grip Darth Vader would envy. For many, this was the first time in years they’d seen it in a theater … or even the first time they’d seen it in a theater at all.

The first time to really feel the magic. To live the story.

Some of you know what I mean. These days, we are surrounded by stories, and especially visual stories. It takes only a moment’s thought to binge an entire series on streaming television, to call up favorite clips on our smartphone, to download and immerse and enjoy.

It’s fun. It’s amazing. I don’t deny it.

But it’s also … well … small.

And you don’t realize how small until you step into something larger again.

Understand, I know the original Star Wars films cold. Saw them in the theater, played them endlessly on VHS, practically memorized the script. But when I walked back in with Missy that night, it was like I hadn’t seen them at all.

Suddenly, there were details that had vanished on a television screen or computer monitor. Suddenly, the music was swelling and the explosions were roaring.

But most of all – best of all – was that audience. Large. Absorbed. Laughing and applauding, unafraid to show how much they were enjoying this. I knew that power from live theater many times, but only rarely from modern movies, where multiple screenings often result in smaller, quieter crowds at each individual showing.

Here, the tale and the audience had become one.

And that, ultimately, is what any story is about.

Authors need readers. Actors need audiences. Tales need listeners – to bring their own lives to the story, their own thoughts and experience and wonder that fills in the blanks and makes it whole.

And when you have a lot of those lives in one place, where they can merge and transform and build, it creates a power that carries along everything in its wake. A hundred pieces, suddenly joined into a larger whole.

Inside the movie theater, that’s a powerful metamorphosis. Outside the movie theater, it can change the world.

I don’t mean the mindless conformity of an Imperial stormtrooper unit, though stories have been and will be twisted to do that, too. No, this is the power of the Rebels, bringing together aliens and droids, princesses and smugglers, ancient warriors and naive farm boys, into a cause that’s greater for having all of them. A story that’s richer than any one of them could have done alone.

That’s our story. Our epic.

And one heck of a smile at bedtime.

 

Pass the Popcorn

Uncle Oscar wants so badly to be cool. And that’s exactly how he’s doing it … badly.

Is anyone really surprised?

It’s weird to even be writing about the Oscars in mid-summer, but that’s what happens when the Academy gets desperate. And desperate it is. Ratings for the famed award show have been falling like the villain in a Disney movie. More and more, the Academy is seen as out of touch, reaching a hysterical climax in 2017 when it was even out of touch with its own program. (“And the winner is … La-La Land! Uh, hold that thought …”)

So they’re rolling the dice. Taking their shot. And this audacious, daring, newly revealed one-in-a-million top secret battle plan is … to give popular films their own special Oscar.

Gee, I can hear the audiences streaming back already. Or maybe that’s my migraine again.

OK, they’re looking at a few other changes as well, such as shortening the ceremony (gee, where have we heard THAT before?) and moving it to an earlier date. But it’s the “Popcorn Oscar” that has gotten the attention. After all, it’s hard to beat the power of a bad idea whose time has come.

Don’t get me wrong. The Oscars can be a wee bit snobbish. The Academy didn’t honor its first fantasy Best Picture winner until 2004, and “The Return of the King” remains the only one. “Silence of the Lambs” is still the only horror winner, despite the impact of films like “Jaws” or “The Sixth Sense.” It’s never given the top honor to a science fiction film (even with nominees like “Star Wars,” “E.T.” and “Inception”), or to an animated film (“Beauty and the Beast, “anyone?). So a little broadening is not a bad idea.

But setting aside a separate table for “the popular kids” is – well, cynical and clueless to say the least. Let me count the ways:

1) In an age of smartphones and Twitter, does anyone think that an audience will tune in to an epic-length award show for one category?

2) How do you define “popular?” Ticket sales? Online ballots? Number of illegal downloads? Buzzwords per minute?

3) As several commentators have noted, the superhero film “Black Panther” was a recent critical and commercial darling. Is it just a little tone deaf to announce a “separate but equal” film category for it in the same year?

4) Who says that a film the audience likes can’t actually be … how do I put this … good?

It does happen. Best Picture winners like “Schindler’s List” broke hearts and earned bucks. “Rocky” raised spirits and lifted a little trophy of its own. “The Godfather” made audiences and critics an offer they couldn’t refuse, and “Titanic” proved that every rule has its exception. (Is my snark showing?)

This shouldn’t be surprising. Films are stories, and stories depend on the audience as much as the author. A tale can be moving, vivid, true to the heart – but if no one hears it, it withers and dies forgotten.

I’m not saying that popular acclaim is the only measure of quality, or even a guaranteed one. If that were the case, the Transformers films would be among the great epics of our time. Small stories can be gems, and letting them shine in the spotlight is a worthy act. But that’s not because they’re “high art” or “low art” – it’s because they’re good art, something that any story can aspire to, from the biggest seller to the smallest silhouette.

If the Academy can take big films seriously as Best Picture possibilities, the new category is superfluous. If it can’t, it’s an insulting excuse to shunt “unworthy” films to the side. Either way, it’s time to put this one back in the envelope and just let good stories be good stories.

How cool would that be?

Screening the New Year

The lights went dark. The ads went quiet. The familiar words appeared on the screen.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …

And with that, it was time to hit the holiday hyperdrive into another universe – even if it was without the usual crew.

Once upon a time, this would have been time spent with my Dad. After I graduated college and took my first job in Kansas, I made sure to come back to Colorado for the holidays. That was when our favorite literary universe of Middle-Earth first hit the big screen, so Dad and I always carved out a night to go see it. From there, it became a habit, even after I came back to the Front Range.

The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit. Jason Bourne. Harry Potter. The Force Awakens. Something big and bold and splashy to wave out the old year and welcome the new one. As a kid, this would have been a summertime adventure, especially since Star Wars movies were always released in May. Now, it was something as brilliant as any string of Christmas lights and as dependable as any Times Square ball dropping.

This year, the count’s off a little bit. This year, with my parents in Washington State, it was my 7-year-old nephew Gil who got to see The Last Jedi with Dad. (Funny enough, that’s the same age at which I saw The Empire Strikes Back with Dad and became a fan for life.) This year, Heather and I watched the movie with friends even while our memories were with an audience far, far away.

And this year, it still felt more right than any countdown with Dick Clark ever could.

I’ve never been much for New Year’s resolutions. Easily made, easily forgotten. But with apologies to Robert Fulghum, everything I do know about New Year’s lessons, I learned from a night at the movies:

The story will go unexpected places. Let it. With the Tolkien movies, it was because Hollywood can never leave a literary adaptation alone, even when it’s done well. With something that’s pure cinema, like Star Wars, the directors will still have something in their back pocket. Maybe several somethings. (“Darth Vader is his what??”) Whatever story you find, take it on its own merits and follow where it goes – arguing about it in your head at the time will just mean you miss the best parts.

Talk with your family. Some of those surprises, of course, fueled many a conversation outside of the theater. The fate of Han Solo. The craftiness of Luke. Talking about them afterward not only drove them in more firmly, they tied us more firmly and created a family story to go with the fictional one.

Never give up hope. OK, this is practically routine for Hollywood, but it still bears remembering. Empire became one of my favorite films because its victory was survival. Nobody blew up a battle station. Everyone came away battered and scarred, sometimes literally. But they did get away. The fight went on, with promises made that friends would not be forgotten. That’s something that I think most of us can identify with.

Remember, and say goodbye. Not everyone gets to finish the story. On screen, we got that memory – and a catch in the throat — as Carrie Fisher performed what would be her last turn as Leia. Off screen … well, we all have our own separations and farewells, none of them at a time we would have chosen. Acknowledge them. They’re part of your tale.

Now it’s time for a new chapter. And whether it enters to the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” or of John Williams, it will be yours to tell. Tell it well.

And don’t forget to bring a few dollars for popcorn.