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