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Totems: Movies & Nunchucks

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Totems: Movies & Nunchucks

TOTEM

—Noun

Anything serving as a distinctive, often venerated, emblem or symbol.


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A Fairy tale

for your senses explodes with veritable magic as the colors, sights, and sounds transport you to a new and exciting world at the center of our industrious city...

The word “totem” has been on the tip of my tongue for a while now, ever since my daughter and I embarked on an impromptu adventure through the vibrant streets of Chinatown, here in Downtown Los Angeles.

This fairy tale for your senses explodes with veritable magic as the colors, sights, and sounds transport you to a new and exciting world at the center of our industrious city.

Hearing my daughter gasp as we drove under the two motionless but enchantingly alive golden dragons battling one another as you’re welcomed into this place rushed a flood of memories to my mind.

I remembered walking those same streets and seeing the parade of multicolored paper dancing on the floor from the little popping fireworks we tossed on the ground. I remembered visiting those same cabinets of curiosity, the little hole-in-the-wall-shops full of strange trinkets that held such foreign and mysterious wonder. In those moments, as my daughter and I walked those streets, I couldn’t help but feel the same wondrous excitement I had when I was a kid her age.

So, when thinking about our now shared experience and seeing her feel the same fascinating joy I did as a kid, I needed something that would memorialize this very real right of passage for her. So, I did what my parents did every time my siblings and I would come here. I welcomed my daughter into our tribe by placing all our memories of this day into the one totem that seems to be synonymous with Chinatown: Nunchucks!

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These Weapons

are held in such high regard that there is even a statue raised of the legendary Bruce Lee wielding them in Chinatown’s iconic Central Plaza.

These foam-cased weapons of self-destruction are by far one of the most beloved and emblematic items one can find in Chinatown, along with the little paper poppers I mentioned above. But, every store has an entire rack or bin completely devoted to these multicolored symbols of action and adventure.

These weapons are held in such high regard that there is even a statue raised of the legendary Bruce Lee wielding them in Chinatown’s iconic Central Plaza.

My daughter chose the white ‘chucks with the gold dragon insignia on it and a four pack of green and red paper poppers. But, after the fleeting bliss of the popper's momentary awe, she unwrapped her new weapon out of its plastic pouch and ventured off into her own Bruce Lee style adventure: battling ninjas, dragons, and swarming Chinese Lucky Cat figurines.

We fought and battled and escaped via nunchuck helicopter to safety. Finally, we made it home, and she clenched her new toy and fell asleep. Whether momentary or not, the totem had accomplished its purpose. Just like my parents before me, I had successfully assigned meaning to the day, its events, and memories into these nunchucks and I hope, as she grows up, that she'll be able to do the same with her family in the future. 

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MOVIES

& NUNCHUCKS

Similarly, I feel like movies work in the same sort of way. Just like these nunchucks, Movies hold the same power to harness memories and immortalize a given moment in one’s life. Movies can also shape the way we speak, while also informing us of our day to day interactions with friends and family. I mean, The Beta Report itself has developed its own language based solely on Tombstone and the Ocean's movies (Oceans 11, 12, and 13). 

We can also use them as markers, or emblems for our kids, nephews, nieces, etc being grafted into the grander scheme of our families and their respective dynamics. Movies, like nunchucks, are symbols of growth, change, and inclusion. It's an acknowledgement of passage from one phase of our lives to another. 

Now, just to backtrack a little. The idea of totems was already brewing up in my dome, but it wasn't until we chose to go with our throwback Picks of the Week in our last episode that it all came together. That and the fact that I totally failed at giving my own throwback pick on the show.

So, this is me rectifying my shoddy ability to think on the fly and as a result, here are THREE Picks that are my "Movie Nunchucks", my totems, movies that have shaped me and my personality and have fostered long lasting memories, friendships and close family bonds. 

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One More Thing:

No JCVD, Arnie or Seagal...

But, one more prefatory note. Being that this is where I am in life, I've run all these picks through the lens of fatherhood. That Chinatown trip with my daughter got me thinking of all of the other things I want her to experience that I did when I was young, including the movies I watched as a kid.

However, as we've joked on the show, I don't think I will go so far as to show her the full Jean Claude Van Damme catalogue, nor any Paul Verhoeven films, or Steven Seagal classics...all by the age of five, like my parents did with me. 

Instead, I want to highlight the films that helped me get to those movies.

These are three films that I still hold very dear to my heart. Films that I still refer to today. The same movies that helped introduce me to three genres I deeply love: Action, Fantasy, and Horror.

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ACTION

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

From one 'chucker to another, this is the perfect segue into my first pick. The 1990's classic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the perfect introduction for our kids to dive right into the action genre. This movie is fun, playfully goofy, and it also has some pretty great fight choreography and action sequences. It has ninjas, rebellious kids and their anti-establishment wonderland, ancient secret societies, great costumes and even greater character designs. And, aside from having a great collection of unique and entertaining heroes, The Shredder aka Oroku Saki has been criminally underrated as a classic movie villain.

He had a great look, with the menacing helmet, mask and spiky armor. He was also an imposing figure and commanded attention/respect from both the turtles and his Foot Soldiers. Then, he had one of the most intimidating voices of any villain I had ever heard. Much in the same vein as Darth Vader (or maybe closer to Bane, so that the nerds don't kill me), with their faces being obscured, their voices have to do a lot of the acting for them, and David McCharen did an amazing job at voicing one of the most terrifying and formidable villains of my childhood. 

But, then again, this is all about the turtles. Like I mentioned above, movies have the power to immortalize memories and cultivate bonds. In this instance, the four unique turtles taught me just that: Everyone is unique, but their distinct uniqueness is what adds value to their family and friends. Underneath all of the action, ninjas, and pizza, the heart of this film lies in their family bond and that is ultimately what allows the turtles to come together and save the day. 

Plus, and more importantly, it also helped me discover the visceral power of the word: "DAMN!" In another "Golden Ticket" moment in my life, once Raphael yelled that out to the sky for the world to hear, the flood gates were open and I had the perfect defense for using the word if my parents ever tried to tell me not to say it. As a parent, I think I'd still give my daughter a hard time should she add that into her everyday vernacular, but I'd secretly be smiling on the inside. 

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FANTASY

Willow (1988)

Ok so, first off, let me get something off my chest. This Pick has everything to do with Solo: A Star Wars Story and my belief that because of Willow, Solo will be good, if not, great. Let me explain.

Both films are directed by Ron Howard and they both share a George Lucas connection. Lucas wrote Willow and he also created the character of Han Solo. Pretty basic stuff. But, where it gets interesting are the parallels that I think exist between the two films.

The biggest comparison is with young Val Kilmer and his character in Willow. He could have been the perfect young Han Solo. Or, I should say, Kilmer’s character Madmartigan was the perfect young Han Solo! He is charming, he is defiant, he is heroic—when it’s convenient—and much like Han, he cares more than he would like to let on.

Mardmartigan’s anti-hero antics were the perfect foil to Willow’s (like Luke‘s) unwavering hope and growing bravery. You could say, “But, this just means he copied the archetype and basically fit Kilmer in the Solo mold.” Well, people also say “imitation is the sincirest form of flattery” and in this instance, imitating and executing as well as he did, makes me feel that young Han Solo is in good hands with Howard at the helm. Don’t believe me? Feel free and check this out for yourself and watch this movie. Val Kilmer’s performance is worth your time. But, there is more...

Like Solo, this Ron Howard film has all of the makings of a great movie: a true underdog hero with big dreams, a charming rogue, and a seemingly impossible quest to accomplish. Wrap all that in a world of myth and magic, and the end result is nothing short of amazing.

Willow stars the legendary Warwick Davis who has been in almost everything that involves a little person. From Star Wars to Harry Potter, Leprechaun and The Chronicles Of Narnia, he’s been a pillar of greatness in the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres. 

Like I mentioned above, his unrelenting determination, his love for his family, and unwavering belief in hope make his character easy to root for. You cheer for his victories and lament his failures. But ultimately, what makes him great is his peresevernce and his steadfast belief in hope. Despite the obstacles he encounters or the seemingly insurmountable threats at his heels, he never relents and continues on his journey to ensure that the little baby, Elora Danan, that mysteriously appears in his village is delivered to safety. 

This movie is all about subverting expectations and allowing our characters to blaze their own paths and become what they truly wish to be. In the context of movies as totems, this movie teaches us and our children the importance of perseverance and believing in oneself, especially when no one else does. At the end, none of our heroes are as they began. Willow, Madmartigan, and even Madmartigan’s love interest Sorsha dispels all the evil expectations placed on her by her malevolent mother and forges forward toward who she truly wishes to be.

In the end, although this fantasy takes place in a world much different than ours, it’s lessons nevertheless hold true here too, for both us and our kids. 

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HORROR

Monster Squad (1987)

You didn’t really think I’d miss an opportunity to shout out one of my favorite movies of all time, did you? 

A precursor to Stranger Things, this is the original monster fighting team that became an instant cult classic. Unlike those other kids from Hawkins, these kids in Monster Squad didn’t have, or need, special powers. All they needed were a few stakes, a bow and arrow, and an exhaustive wealth of knowledge regarding the monsters they were facing. Because, as you now know, Wolfman has nards! And, what would our lives be without that special little tidbit of information. Thank you Monster Squad.

But seriously, this movie is goofy and it beautifully encapsulates everything special about the 80’s. The dialogue, the clothes, the music, its all so authentically 80's and not shrouded in revisionist nostalgia. Nothing here is painted in a re-purposed light. Everything about the 80's is there, the good, the bad, and the ugly, for us to take in and enjoy. That makes this the perfect entry level horror film for you and your kids. The friendship between the kids is so invitingly corny in that “80's innocence” type of way, that you can't help but to invest and root for them. The monsters, though not outright terrifying, can be genuinely scary at times as they borrow from the more visually graphic and gory special effects that 80's slasher films made famous. And, the relationship between one monster and the rest of the team is so heartwarming and sweet, that their eventual fate at the end of the movie is utterly devastating. But, more on that later...

This movie is also the perfect mix of the two picks above. Like the Ninja Turtles and Willow, this movie introduces a great action/adventure quest that is steeped in lore, myth, and magic. And, just like the previous two, this film also advocates for the importance of family, hope, and unabashedly fighting for what is right and standing for what you believe in.

Monster Squad also boasts a great team dynamic. The relationship between all of the kids is amazing and it wonderfully depicts the bond that existed between friends before Fortnite or Online Gaming. It was something tangible, it was transfixing as the make-believe or unreal scenarios enveloped our entire world and became vividly real. And, like Stranger Things, this movie pulls its strength from all of kid's performances and really capitalizes on their gullible charm and their tireless conviction in their belief in monsters. 

But, what stuck with me most from this film than with the other two is the way it handled loss and sacrifice. If any of you have ever heard an episode of our podcast, than you know all about my "FRANKENSTEIN, NOOOO!" outburst. That really happened. And (of course), it happened when I was around 5 years old. If any movie memory has become a "totem" in my life, it is definitely this one. We joke about it now, but I really learned about loss and sacrifice through Frankenstein in this movie.

Watching him face off against the epitome of evil (Dracula) and in turn, sacrifice himself to save his friends...it pulled on every little heartstring that tethered my heart to my young impressionable mind. It was soul crushing. But, through this, I learned its okay to be sad, I learned its okay to let go, and, most importantly, this bible verse became very real to me: "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends." -John 15:13. It seems funny to write that out now, but, its true. I learned a biblical truth through Frankenstein. #Godsplan #blessed

If any of that still doesn't convince you to watch this movie, just revel in the greatness of this 80's montage gem. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Monster Squad can be rented or bought on Amazon Prime, but I wasn't able to find Willow streaming anywhere yet. But, you can actually watch the whole thing right now on Youtube! The video quality is great. 

J.

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The Ghost That Guides Donald Glover: Hiro Murai

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The Ghost That Guides Donald Glover: Hiro Murai

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Donald Glover...

is on track to become the worlds most complete and widely influential entertainer we’ve had in recent history.


Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino has the world buzzing right now. From his hit show Atlanta on FX to the chart topping genre blending exploits of his music, Glover is on track to become the worlds most complete and widely influential entertainer we’ve had in recent history.

It would be redundant to list the many talents this man possesses, as chances are, you’ve read or heard about them in all of the many blogs, interviews, articles, etc that are currently flooding the internet about him right now.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you know all about Glover’s success as an actor and musician. You’ve probably memorized every word of his song—and instant classic—“Redbone” from his latest album “Awaken, My Love” or have already been charmed to death by his charisma oozing turn as the suave card playing scoundrel Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Chances are, you already know: This man can do it all.

Most recently though, “This is America” is driving the Glover conversation into another stratosphere. The song and its accompanying video have sparked the world’s consciousness with its socially charged message and it’s deliciously detailed symbolism. With what is being called a masterful execution of his conceptual vision he has perfectly leveraged entertainment to “introduce a narrative into pop” as Justin Simien, creator of Dear White People, so perfectly put it.

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A collaboration

 

that is creating an icon... 

Now, like I mentioned above, if you’re reading this now, I am pretty sure you’ve seen all there is to see regarding this song. From the reaction videos on Youtube to the “10 Things You Might Have Missed…” blogs swirling around the windstorm of attention Glover has garnered since this song’s release. And, while I am biting my tongue a bit and may find myself working up another 500+ words on the video itself, I am a little more interested with what, or rather, who is behind this and many other of Glover’s visual masterpieces. I am more concerned with the unsung hero who is eerily crafting everything you know about Glover's work. It's a collaboration that is creating an icon and he is perhaps today's best kept Hollywood secret.

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HIRO MURAI

His surreal aesthetic is key to everything we know and love about Donald Glover.

From the growing shadow of Glover’s incandescent success hides a ghost. A haunting vaporous eye that is guiding the visual landscapes of a lot of Glover’s music videos, movies, and TV shows. From the brooding dark, director Hiro Murai emerges as that ghost. A faceless specter hovering above, beside, and many times through everything that Glover does. Murai's surreal aesthetic is key to everything we know and love about Donald Glover.

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Like a ghost

Murai effortlessly phases between the ordinary and the unusual within a moments notice.

Like a ghost, Murai effortlessly phases between the ordinary and the unusual within a moments notice, a quality that has become synonymous with Glover and something we've become accustomed to seeing in FX's Atlanta, which Murai has directed on multiple occasions. In fact, of the 21 episodes of Atlanta from Season 1 & 2, Murai has directed 14 episodes. The only other director with more than two directing credits is Donald Glover, who has directed 4 episodes in its two seasons.

We (The Beta Report) have recently talked about the sudden shift Atlanta has taken in its second season. From socially poignant satire to the surreal ubiquity of a black Justin Bieber, a pet peacock, or the existence of an invisible car. No matter which direction this show went, it was always hilarious. However, the second season has taken a rather dark turn. Every episode now feels like it’s part of a Black Mirror-esque series within the Get Out universe (Is this America?).

It’s not to say that this season is lacking in humor, its more that—like everything Glover and Murai do—its social complexities and moral dilemmas are layered beautifully within its stellar writing, mesmerizing visual cues and terribly deep symbolism. However, now its all shrouded in foreboding. And though the first season of Atlanta had the same visual aesthetic: a warm smoothed contrast giving everything a polished grit that borders on ethereal urban dreaminess. This new season carries that same look, but dips it in fear. Turning the lighthearted glow of season one into less of a dream and more of a waking nightmare. 

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He has

mastered the art of the unexpected.

While Murai's work with Glover has definitely propelled him further into the spotlight, its what he’s done outside of Glover's universe that has made me fall in love with his work even more. The reason being, Murai has mastered the art of the unexpected and it’s evident in everything he does. His conceptualization and style appeals to our curiosity, and much like the alluring fascination people have with ghosts, he entices us with the mystique of the unknown. Again, much like a ghost, we're drawn in by two things: familiarity and mystery, themes he utilizes to optimal effect in all of his work. Paired with the power, persuasion and politics of the source material he is adapting, the end product is a force to behold. Ultimately, we're possessed by the spirit that dwells within his work and the evocative power that permeates from his style. 

Take for example, these two videos Murai directed: Michael Kiwanuka's "Black Man in a White World". 

And, Flying Lotus' "Never Catch Me" featuring Kendrick Lamar.

Like everything he does, these two videos have this palbable surreal energy coursing through them. They both effortlessly move between reality and the intimate realness of a dream, and they never give you a chance to differentiate between the two. In both instances, Murai can only be successful in creating and cultivatating that mind bending conflict by executing his vision with unwavering conviction, which he does with religious fervor. But, he also exhibits perfect control. And, not just of his camera, but of the narrative itself too.

In both videos, Murai vividly navigates through the stillness of every scene, focusing on the seemingly normal and lucid authenticity of the world he’s placed in frame. He furthers his empathetic manipulation by accentuating the familiar, allowing us to settle in and become part of the story he wants to tell: the church pews, the flowers, children jumping rope, the electric lines, a helicopter, the city streets. We’re subconsciously lured in by its relateability. That is until he decides to flip things on their heads, juxtaposing the ordinary with the sudden unforeseen chaos that is now commanding our attention on screen: dancing children jumping out of the coffin, the car crash, and the flying man. Like the viscous drawl of a phantom moving from one haunted room to another, his work is arresting and at the risk of being redundant, the end result is: haunting. 

Without the ghost that guides our eye, his unearthly lens and transcendental style, we wouldn’t know the genius that is: Donald Glover.

Without the ghost that guides our eye, his unearthly lens and transcendental style, we wouldn’t know the genius that is: Donald Glover.

Murai has worked with a long list of artists like: A Tribe Called Quest, Queens of the Stone Age, Earl Sweatshirt, Flying Lotus, Michael Kiwanuka, The Shins, Spoon, David Guetta, and of course, Childish Gambino/Donald Glover, to name a few.

In fact, Murai has collaborated with Glover on multiple platforms: Music Video, TV, and Short Film as well. I’d be so bold as to say that without the ghost that guides our eye, his unearthly lens and transcendental style...Without Hiro Murai, we wouldn’t know the genius that is: Donald Glover.

If you guys would like to see more of his work, make sure and check out his website: hiromurai.com.  

J.

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Lost In Space: A Beta Review

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Lost In Space: A Beta Review

For those that know me know that I’m a Sci-Fi geek. I love everything Star Wars (yes, even The Last Jedi, Uno), Star Trek in all its iterations (TV and movies), and I’m part of the crowd that is hoping Fox brings back Firefly. If you don’t know what Firefly is, just know it stars Nathan Fillion and he is awesome in everything! I also love shows that have a special family dynamic. When a show combines that and sci-fi, I’m sold. A perfect example is one of my favorite shows of all time: Fringe. I’ve talked about it on the podcast and I can go on and on about how great those characters are and their special bond as a makeshift family but that’s a blog for another day. Today it’s about the Netflix reboot and modernization of Lost in Space.

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Music, Movies, Musings: Welcome Home (Reaction/Review)

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Music, Movies, Musings: Welcome Home (Reaction/Review)

I’ve occasionally talked about feeding—or falling prey—to my own creative indulgences. For the record, I am very easily impressed and I can from time to time, become madly infatuated with a song, video, movie, picture, etc, almost instantly. Those who know me well have heard me utter these same seven words in different contexts all the time: “This is the best thing I’ve ever...” then insert any verb [tasted, heard, touched, etc...]. But, there are those few things that do more than just feed my impressionable heart, and instead, bloom lasting inspiration.

 

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Netflix's New Horror Classic: Verónica (REVIEW)

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Netflix's New Horror Classic: Verónica (REVIEW)

There is something rather intoxicating about one’s native tongue and the beauty that flows from its timbre. Almost like a sacred incantation that ensnares your ears, the spellbinding appeal of its words caress the deepest recess of my soul and makes me feel ancient. These words like roads, roots, veins connect me to the richness of a history that spans hundreds and thousands of years before me. Again, it is quite bewitching. With that said, watching this horror movie in Spanish, for me, was doubly enchanting and by far, more haunting than anything I’ve ever seen before.

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Complete Annihilation: A True(ish) Horror Story

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Complete Annihilation: A True(ish) Horror Story

The last couple of years have been bursting with top flight sci-if and horror films that are not only critically and publically acclaimed, but genuinely terrifying as well. With the success of IT, Get Out, Green Room, The Witch, Sinister, and Cloverfield Paradox, the path has been cleared for more ambitious and utterly terrifying tales to be told. This brings me to this week’s best horror offering: Annihilation.

 

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