Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I'm sorry, could you talk into my right ear instead?

So, I'm nursing an ear infection this week. That's fun.

As ear infections go, it's not one of the worse ones I've had in my life. There wasn't much of a preceding ear ache at all, but the inflammation and swelling came on quickly, and there is occasional ringing and pain associated with it. Don't worry, I've seen the doctor and I've got prescription ear drops and I'm taking ibuprofen to keep the pain to a minimum. This particular ear infection has been more toward the "Wow, what a pain in the ass THIS is" side of the spectrum than the "OMG JUST SHOVE A SHARP STEAK KNIFE IN THERE AND END IT ALREADY" side. And believe me, I know.

I got ear infections all the time as a kid. They came every spring, it seems to me -- like Capistrano and its damned swallows. Every spring I'd get sick and it would settle in one of my ears and off I'd go to the doctor to be poked and pried about in there. I have vague recollections of one doc sticking a pair of tweezers in there and extracting a chunk of ear wax the size of a quarter, and I have other recollections of my mother's, ahem, aggressive application of ear drops to a particularly swollen and inflamed ear canal. (Hey, she had to do what she had to do. I'm still here and I'm not Beethoven, writing music I can't hear.)

Of course, nothing was quite so bad as Stephen King's experiences with child ear infections. Thankfully I never once had to endure the lancing of my ear drum, as King describes in this somewhat harrowing passage from On Writing:

The doctor looked in my ears, spending most of his time (I think) on the left one. Then he laid me down on his examining table. "Lift up a minute, Stevie," his nurse said, and put a large absorbent cloth -- it might have been a diaper -- under my head, so that my cheek rested on it when I lay back down. I should have guessed that something was rotten in Denmark. Who knows, maybe I did.

There was a sharp smell of alcohol. A clank as the ear doctor opened his sterilizer. I saw the needle in his hand -- it looked as long as the ruler in my school pencil-box -- and tensed. The ear doctor smiled reassuringly and spoke the lie for which doctors should be immediately jailed (time of incarceration to be doubled when the lie is told to a child): "Relax, Stevie, this won't hurt." I believed him.

He slid the needle into my ear and--

Actually, I'm not gonna quote the rest of that passage. Suffice it to say that King tells the tale quite ably. He ain't the Master of Horror for nothing. That guy has a knack for making you feel like you're there when the awful shit starts happening.

So as I write this, the ear is still overly swollen so it's hard to hear on that side. The other morning one of my bosses tried talking to me from my left before I had realized he was there (and thus had a chance to tell him of the annoying malady-of-the-week), and I just turned and looked at him as if he hadn't said a word. Luckily he's a nice guy. I've had bosses with whom that might not have gone over so well. (Not at my current job, though, I'm glad to say.) I'm doing a lot of "What the hell is that sound!!!" reactions to standard stuff: the running of the refrigerator really sounds strange when it's not in its proper stereophonic sound. I can tell it's getting better by the fact that it's not as sore, but wow, I'd really like at times to just jam the world's biggest Q-tip in there and root that shit out.

There's something about those maladies when you can feel that various openings and cavities within the head aren't nice and open the way they should be, isn't there? As I science-fiction geek, I think of it thusly. There are times in life -- rare, but real -- when given the choice between a working lightsaber and the gizmo Arnold uses in this scene from Total Recall to extract the tracking device from his sinuses, I'd take the nasal rooter.


In other boring news, I ran out of small coffee filters last week and thus I had to switch to drinking green tea in the mornings instead of coffee. I've actually been enjoying this change, partly because I've been using one of my nifty teapots!

Teapot! I'm taking advantage of the fact that I forgot to buy coffee filters this week by brewing loose green tea, which is something I both love and don't do enough. #tea #yum

I'm on a green tea kick of late. #yum #tea #greentea

And in one last bit of weird life stuff, last Friday we ordered out at work for Chinese food for lunch. It seems that the dark feelings of the Trump Era may also be affecting those who write the fortunes for fortune cookies:

Wow...even the fortune cookies have taken a dark turn of late.... #FortuneCookieTellsAll

Wow.

OK, that's enough of that. Back to working and writing and waiting for my left ear to inevitably pop open, all at once, when I'm standing someplace noisy. I'll be the guy covering my ears and screaming in the middle of the Housewares section at Target.


Friday, February 17, 2017

Bad Joke Friday

I admit, this isn't funny. At all. I'm only using it because the parenthetical note is funnier than the joke, and because this is a vintage bad joke that was apparently printed in 1921.


(via)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Something for Thursday

Two minutes of soul perfection. Here's Sam Cooke with "Touch the Hem of His Garment".

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

VHS Memories

So the era of the VHS videotape player has finally come to an end. Last year, the last company that was still making the things rolled the last one ever off its lines, and that's it.



I don’t have any particular attachment to the VHS technology in itself, but I did have a lot of fun times using it. How could I not? VHS was the home video thing for me for about 17 years (give or take). We got our first VCR in 1985 or so, and I didn’t get my first DVD player until 2002. Movie nights, recording shows for watching later...VHS was it.

I’m a member of the first generation to make the shift to “watching it later” or “watching a movie whenever I wanted”. Before the mid-80s, for most people, if you missed an episode of your favorite show, your options were to wait for that episode to run a second time in the summer, or just never see it at all (unless the show made it to syndication, in which case you could see the episode years later). I remember hearing about videotape recorders in the late 70s, but the technology didn’t become a serious thing for home use until the mid-80s, and that’s when we jumped on board. I don’t remember what brand our first VCR was, but I remember that unit pretty well: it had a silver casing, it was a front-loading machine (as opposed to top-loaders, in which the tape went into this carriage that rose up from the top of the machine and then snapped down into place). The ‘play’, ‘record’, and other buttons were on the left, and there was a long line of little buttons across the front for the channels. No “up” and “down” channel buttons – you programmed a button to a specific channel.

I’m sure it’s just an accident of the day of the week that we finally bought that first VCR, but the very first thing we ever recorded was an episode of a crappy detective show on NBC called Riptide. This show aired right after The A-Team for a couple years, and right before Remington Steele. I was so amazed at this technological quantum leap for our household that I watched that damned episode of Riptide five or six times. Hey, it’s what we had. (What, you don't remember Riptide? Well...frankly, the only reason I remember it is because I watched that stupid episode five or six times. Here are the opening credits, and I don't remember a thing other than three guys who were always around water and who were solving crimes. Huh...thinking back, weren't just about all the shows in the 1980s about two or three guys who were always around water and solving crimes?)

The first movie we ever rented was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which blew my friggin’ mind, man. I just could not believe that I was sitting in my own living room watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. I watched that four or five times, too. We rented it from this place that was primarily a stereo and TV place, which had added movie rentals to its list of services, and in addition to the movie rental charge, I remember them charging a deposit of $50 for each rental! This was refunded upon return of the unbroken tape. That struck me as weird, but this was 1985 – no one knew how commonplace video rental was to become. I was just astonished to be watching one of my favorite movies of all time, in my own living room.

The first movie that I bought, with my own money, was Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Maybe that’s why I still have a soft spot for that movie? I remember desperately wanting a copy of Star Wars and/or The Empire Strikes Back, but in that part of the home video era, no one was really sure that people were going to want to own movies, so a lot of titles were “priced for rental”, meaning that individual copies were $80, aimed at rental joints that were starting to become more common. I eventually got copies of the first two Star Wars flicks via illegal copies made by a friend’s family member (how that transpired, I’ve no idea), and I wouldn’t actually buy my own legit copies until college in 1992.

Oh, and we broke a videotape once by dropping it on the floor! The tapes you bought at the store to record you own stuff? Those came in boxes with the opening on the side, so you pulled the tape out like a book in a slipcase. Tapes of prerecorded movies, however, opened at the bottom, so one time one of us held up the box and the tape just slid right out and hit the floor. Yipes.

I would, however, record movies “to keep” off broadcast television. Right around the time we got our first VCR we also got cable for the first time, so I was able to tape movies in what I thought was great quality. Sure, they were edited for broadcast, but that was OK! I’d sit there, watching faithfully, and at each commercial break, I would jump up and press PAUSE, stopping the recording so I wouldn’t get a commercial in the middle. Sometimes I missed the target and got commercial bits; other times I missed the target and missed a little bit of movie on the back end. Video quality? Please! It was shitty as all hell, but I had no idea. I’d record on “Extended Play” mode, getting six hours on each VHS cassette. If I wanted to watch the third movie on a tape? I’d have to fast-forward through the tape and keep pressing ‘play’ until I found it!

Video rental stores were different in those days, too. There was a store in Olean, NY that not only didn’t categorize the tapes at all, but they didn’t alphabetize, either. It was all there on the shelves, and if you wanted a specific movie, you had to search for it, through the entire store. That place didn’t last terribly long.

By the time I got to college, VCRs were prevalent enough that every household owned one, but not every college student did. So if you happened to own one on campus, you became everybody’s best friend. We had many a Friday Movie Night in college, so many that I’m surprised we didn’t burn out the motors of my roommate’s VCR. A favorite was Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which one roommate owned on a dubbed tape that had started to wear out. If you remember VHS tapes, as they wore out the color on the programs started to do funky things, and this copy of The Wall was, as a result, even more psychedelic than usual.

Other movies that got frequent VHS play? The Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, obviously. Close Encounters. The Star Treks, which at that point numbered only five. And one year in college I discovered that the little video joint up at the corner, a tiny place next door to the local student bar, actually had the complete run on VHS of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos! I rented the entire thing, one night after another. ‘Twas glorious, it was.

Fast forward to family life. We owned, at one point or another, just about every Disney movie that existed. These were invaluable during The Daughter’s early years. There was a show on the Disney channel called Bear in the Big Blue House that she adored when she was just a year old: when that show came on, she was transfixed and wouldn’t make a sound. So when we learned that the Disney Channel was going to run a marathon, we taped the whole thing. Six whole hours of that show, man. Yes, we used the teevee and VCR – once in a while – as a babysitter. I feel a little bad about this, but only a little.

At some point, The Daughter got jelly on the VCR’s innards, which infected our copy of The Rescuers. I don’t remember how this happened, but I remember that we had to buy a couple of head-cleaning tapes that we had to use every time she decided to watch The Rescuers. Which was often, as she really liked that movie. There are a lot of Disney films that I have never seen since we moved beyond VHS some years ago. It’s a shame that some films haven’t made the transition along with us. Remember how Disney films came in those oversized plastic clamshell boxes, unlike most other VHS movies, which came in cardboard boxes that opened at the bottom?

In the mid-to-late 90s, people started realizing that they were missing parts of the movies on VHS, quite literally: they began learning about aspect ratios, and realizing that teevee screens of the day were not the same shape as movie screens. VHS movie transfers covered this by use of what was called “pan-and-scan”: the image would shift back and forth as needed. The worst example of this I can recall came at the beginning of Return of the Jedi. First, the opening crawls weren’t legible until the crawl reached halfway up the screen, because that’s when the words were all visible, but then the camera panned down to the Death Star over Endor, at left, and a Star Destroyer enters the frame from above right, echoing the original film’s famous first shot. For the video transfer of Jedi, though, we had the pan down to the Death Star, and then a new pan right – not in the original film – to allow the Star Destroyer’s entrance. This was awful...and in the mid-90s, more and more movies started showing up in a “letterboxed” format, meaning that you got the see the entire cinematic composition, at the expense of black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. “Widescreen” or “Letterboxed” VHS copies of movies became a big enough deal that a lot of video stores and places like Media Play (God, that store was awesome in the mid-to-late 90s!) had entire sections devoted to them.

Through all this, digital video formats were always a thing. Laserdiscs were always popular with the high-quality set, but the dream always seemed to be a CD-sized format. This finally arrived in the late 1990s, with DVDs. We finally made that transition ourselves in 2002. The first DVD I ever watched was Spider Man, and I remember being shocked at the sharpness of the image and the fact that the colors didn’t bleed. We wouldn’t ditch VHS for good for another few years, but I knew that the writing was on the wall. At that point we only used VHS to tape shows to watch later, and eventually this function, too, fell by the wayside as on-demand and streaming services (along with, I cannot lie, torrents) came of age.

Of course, even DVD had its day, and now Blu-ray is the thing for those who insist upon physical formats. Most folks seem to think that online streaming will replace it all, of course, in our onward march to the Internet becoming the equivalent of Star Trek’s library computers, where the Enterprise’s computer had so much storage that Captain Picard could call up the text of a shitty novel that had been out of print for over three hundred years and had been forgotten upon publication.

I don’t miss VHS. Its technical limitations were too glaring in retrospect. But I do miss a certain feel about home video back then. Watching a movie with friends was an event, and for a really special night you’d cue up the entire Star Wars trilogy or some such thing. I discovered Casablanca on VHS, and I came to love it deeply by watching it every single Sunday afternoon, after football, for a solid month in my sophomore year of college. There was a feeling of uniqueness to VHS, even five or six years after the technology began taking hold. Nowadays, watching whatever we want whenever we want is a fact of life. Everybody owns at least a small selection of movies. The idea that missing a teevee episode once meant missing it forever is utterly alien to most now.

No, I don’t miss VHS. But I had a lot of good times around VHS, and those, I certainly do miss.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Tone Poem Tuesday

Here's a particularly lovely piece of tone painting from the film music world, from a movie you might not expect it from: The Karate Kid Part II. These movies had a "diminishing returns" kind of thing going on, in that the first one was great, the second one was pretty good, and the third was too much. But in the second, there's a lovely scene toward the end when Daniel and his new Okinawan girlfriend enact a tea ceremony, and this is the music that Bill Conti wrote for that dialog-free scene. It's impressionistic and beautiful, and it creates its own little tone picture. (It also ends abruptly because in the movie, that's when the wind from the approaching storm whips up and blows out their candle, alerting them that danger is on the way.)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Bad Joke Friday

Stolen from Tumblr:

A police officer sees a man driving around with a pickup truck full of penguins. He pulls the guy over and says, “You can’t drive around with penguins in this town! Take them to the zoo immediately.”

The guy says OK, and drives away.

The next day, the officer sees the guy still driving around with the truck full of penguins, and they’re all wearing sun glasses. He pulls the guy over and says, “I thought I told you to take these penguins to the zoo yesterday?”

The guy replies, “I did … today I’m taking them to the beach!”

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

"I am one with the Force and the Force is with me"



So there’s a new STAR WARS movie in town.

Yup, we finally saw Rogue One, on the day after New Year’s. This was not due to any lack of enthusiasm, mind you, but simply the travails and tribulations of trying to find large blocks of time for seeing movies around the Holiday season. Rogue One thus turns out to be the first Star Wars movie that I did not see in its opening weekend since The Empire Strikes Back.

No, none of that matters or has any bearing on what I thought about the movie. So, what did I think of the movie?

Short version: I liked it, quite a bit. I had some complaints and quibbles along the way, but there was nothing in this movie that I found disturbing or annoying (well, almost nothing). So I liked it a lot more than I liked The Force Awakens.

Nothing in this movie is necessary, which an interesting place to start. When Disney bought Lucasfilm, and Star Wars with it, the lay of the land very quickly became clear. Disney was not going to be content with the six existing movies, and they immediately greenlit Episode VII. They soon thereafter made clear that they weren’t going to be content with the old model, either, wherein the new Star Wars movies were spaced three years apart. No, they wanted at least a movie a year, in order to make the Star Wars “cinematic universe” almost as much a going concern as the Marvel one. Now, I’m not sure we’ll ever get to multiple Star Wars movies a year, but until these things stop making money, we’re getting at least one a year.

However, Disney knew that they couldn’t get Episode VIII done that quickly, so they announced a series of stand-alone films that would alternate with the “Saga episode” films. Rogue One is the first of these, and we learned very early what it would be about. Remember back to the opening crawl of the very first Star Wars movie ever? Episode IV: A New Hope (once known, quaintly enough, simply as Star Wars) starts off by giving us this bit of background:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy....

Rogue One is the story of those Rebel spies, the ones who manage to steal the secret Death Star plans while the Rebel ships are busy winning their first victory against the Empire.

In all honesty, when I heard that this was what Disney was doing with this movie, I wasn’t terribly thrilled. This is simply not a story that anyone has ever wanted to hear, is it? Has anyone ever wondered about those spies and how they stole the Death Star plans? I certainly haven’t. It’s like wondering why no one has ever made a movie telling the story of those ill-fated German couriers with the letters of transit in Casablanca, the ones whose murder by Ugarte (Peter Lorre) is reported in that film’s first minute. We don’t need a movie about how a single scientist on the planet Krypton diagnosed that world’s doom; what matters is that world’s single survivor, the baby Kal-el. Nobody needs to see the tale of how Ben and May Parker came to be the guardians for young Peter.

But someone decided that the theft of the Death Star schematics was a story that needed telling, so tell it, they have.

In truth, I still wonder about that. I wonder if this film isn’t partly an attempt by Disney to have the cake and also eat it, by making a standalone Star Wars film that is nevertheless pretty safe. The Star Wars story is so well-known by this point that not much background needs established in Rogue One, and indeed the film gets started and off to the races pretty quickly. There is apparently some technical problem with building the Death Star, and the Empire needs the services of one of its geniuses to fix it. The genius, however – a guy named Galen Erso – is living in seclusion on some planet someplace – hiding, in fact – and the Empire goes to get him, sending Director Krennic himself to fetch the genius. Krennic is the officer who is actually in charge of building the Death Star. After some stuff in which Galen’s wife is killed and his daughter Jyn goes into hiding, Galen is taken anyway.

Flash forward fifteen years or so, when young adult Jyn finds herself targeted by the newly forming Rebel Alliance, because of her father’s position as designer of this new “giant weapon” that they’ve heard the Empire is building. The rest of the film is mostly about that: the coming together of a team of ragtag rebels, each with a different specialty or skill, as they set out to steal the plans for this new super weapon, called “the Death Star”. Somehow Galen has coded a message to Jyn, and when she plays it, he tells her that he has built a weakness into the armored space station.

So basically Rogue One is a kind-of The Guns of Navarone in space, with all the various trappings of Star Wars. For the most part, the film is gripping and entertaining. It’s on the long side – maybe a little too long, especially during the ending sequence which pretty much abandons the main story in favor of some straight-up fanservice, but more on that in a bit. And somehow, despite maybe being a little too long, I felt like we never really got a good feel for the characters aside from Jyn and the droid K-2SO. Even Cassian Andor, the Rebel agent who gets the whole thing rolling by busting Jyn out of Imperial prison, is something of a cypher.

We learn even less about the rest of our ad-hoc strike team. There’s an Imperial pilot who has defected, although we never really learn why. We likewise don’t learn a whole lot at all about our blind warrior-monk or his mercenary friend, aside from the fact that we need some bit of mysticism in a Star Wars movie, and these two provide it. This is actually interesting: Chrrit Imwe, the blind monk, is nevertheless apparently a Force-user of some sort – or at least, he is someone whose life evidences a certain devotion to the Force. He keeps saying “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me,” almost as a mantra, and it’s hard to make the case that he’s not using the Force at points. Again, we have a broadening of the idea of Force-users – begun in The Force Awakens (although it may have begun earlier, in the cartoon shows that I haven’t watched) – who don’t fall into the Jedi-Sith dichotomy.

I don’t think it’s entirely a flaw that the characters in this film are generally fairly broadly sketched. This is a long story, with a lot of moving parts, and there’s not really a great deal of extra time to be dealing with characters backgrounds. A little more would have been helpful, though. There’s a reason why these kinds of movies, like The Guns of Navarone, tend to run on the long side. You need to establish the characters so that when they inevitably start dying, it matters. And I did feel something when some of the characters began expiring during the final battle, so there’s that. I don’t think Rogue One is fatally flawed by inattention to character, at all. I just would have liked a little more.

I was concerned during the film’s production about the tone that was promised. The filmmakers, in various statements, seemed to be indicating a very dark and gritty film was in the offing, so much so that I was worried about the Battlestar Galactification of Star Wars. This hasn’t really happened. The film is substantially darker in tone than most of the Star Wars entries – although it’s nowhere near as grim as Revenge of the Sith – but there is still heroism and even fun to be had along the way. For the most part, the movie earns its emotional beats. In fact, the film earns its emotional beats much more satisfactorally than did The Force Awakens. While I don’t think we get to know the characters as well as we should have, we do still get to know them better than we did in TFA, so when the price for victory starts getting paid, there is real emotion there.

More broadly, the film is darker than many of its predecessors, and it's dark in a pretty interesting way. There are more shades of gray here than usual in a Star Wars movie, and the shades of gray that we see are those presented to desperate people who are presented with awful choices, as opposed to the shades of ever-increasing darkness we see in people who are moving from the Light Side toward the Dark. Rogue One gives us characters who aren't in it for the goodness of the cause, but who aren't motivated by money or power either.

My biggest complaint with Rogue One lies not with the heroes but with the villains. I’ve read a lot of praise for the film in this department, so maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think the movie is entirely successful with the villains. Director Krennic, who is supervising the building of the Death Star, is pretty uneven. At times he is a technocrat, seemingly interested only in what he’s building as an intellectual exercise. This is the most interesting version of him: the man who wants to build this appalling weapon mainly to see if he can do it at all. He doesn’t seem terribly interested in the Empire itself, or vested with any special loyalty to the Emperor. However, at other times he is presented as mustache-twirlingly as every other Star Wars villain, most notably in the film’s opening scenes when he visits ruin about Galen Erso’s family in order to secure his assistance in his project.

Krennic is at times a fearsome commander, and at other times a fearful lackey himself. We meet Governor Tarkin who bosses Krennic around left-and-right, and we also have Krennic visiting Darth Vader himself on what I assume to be Vader’s “home” (a castle-like fortress built over a literal river of molten lava on what looks kind of like Mustafar). A lot of people were thrilled to see Vader in this movie, but in none of his scenes did he seem necessary to me. Vader’s inclusion felt like it was stuffed into the movie almost as a means of “rehabilitating” the image of Vader. The most common trope I’ve heard is that Rogue One made Vader “scary again”, and that it was finally cool to see Darth Vader cut loose with a lightsaber and do evil shit. I point out that we saw exactly that in Revenge of the Sith, just that back then it was his pre-black suit days. A lot of fans don’t seem to consider Vader Vader until he’s ensconced in the black armor and the iron lung, which seems wrong to me.

Likewise, the film’s last few minutes don’t work for me. Again, lots of people love those last few minutes, but for me they feel wrong somehow. Vader chasing Rebels through the corridor with his lightsaber, while they are doing a relay-race thing to get the Death Star plans onto the Tantive IV, was kind of a reach. Likewise, Princess Leia’s appearance in the very last scene didn’t work for me at all. In fact, it pretty much kicked me out of the movie entirely. Part of that, I’m sure, was the jolt of having had Carrie Fisher die just a week or two earlier, which cast a pall over the scene that there’s no way the filmmakers could have predicted.

But in terms of story, that bit doesn’t work for me either. This implies that the beginning of A New Hope takes place literally minutes after the ending of this movie, for one thing. For another, it doesn’t fit with what’s established at that film’s beginning. When Vader takes over the blockade runner at the beginning of A New Hope, Princess Leia protests that she is a member of the Imperial Senate on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan. Vader knows that he claim is bullshit – “If this is a consular ship, where is the ambassador?” – but Leia wouldn’t even be able to make that claim with a straight face if she has just literally fled the scene of the Battle of Scarif. Likewise, Vader’s lines to Leia – “Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by Rebel spies” – doesn’t work at all if the plans weren’t transmitted but rather somehow run by a series of heroic-but-doomed Rebel soldiers who just manage to hand it through the blast door before it seals.

There is also too much Tarkin in this movie. I have to admit that I lost some interest in the various political machinations between Tarkin and Krennic as the film progressed. A little of this stuff went a long way, and Rogue One has too much of it. It takes focus off Krennic a bit, and worse, it lessens him. Krennic becomes something of a pathetic figure by the film’s end, not a fearful one, and in honesty, he’s not even essential, is he? We have him on Scarif at the end, giving us the confrontation that it seems we have to have – villain and hero in a mutually precarious spot – but I have to admit, by the time we got the Battle of Scarif really rolling, I’d lost interest in Krennic. His worst moment has to be the way it takes him a very odd length of time to realize that the Rebels are here to steal the Death Star plans, and this ends up feeling to me like Die Hard’s Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson: “I think they’re goin’ after the lights!”

I don’t want to rip on this stuff too much, but I do think this points up a certain structural flaw with this story as it’s conceived. It’s The Guns of Navarone in Star Wars, but we can’t end with the destruction of the guns, can we? Our big victory here is the acquisition of the plans, which we know happens during a big battle. For me, everything that comes after our heroes have won – after Jyn and Cassian die, having beamed the plans out – is pretty much filler.

I also don’t want to be too hard on the movie for its big action climax, because aside from the very last moments, it’s a fantastic battle. I love that the stakes keep rising as more and more ships get involved, until the Death Star itself shows up. The “limited power blast” from the Death Star’s superlaser is a good touch. I did find the digital re-use of battle footage from A New Hope distracting, but...well, when you’ve seen a movie as many times as I’ve seen A New Hope, there’s not really a way to avoid that, is there? This battle is hectic and violent and thrilling, it’s edited together beautifully, and I like that there are real objectives, not just The Force Awakens’s final battle which boils down to “Hit it as hard as you can!”

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the fact that Rogue One fixes a major plot hole in A New Hope – or at least, that’s what a lot of people say it does. Luke Skywalker is able to destroy the Death Star by taking advantage of a tiny weakness in the battle station, and this film gives us an explanation as to why the Empire was dumb enough to leave that weakness in there (it was actually planned sabotage by Galen Erso). It’s ridiculous, the idea seems to be, that the Empire’s ultimate weapon can be destroyed so easily, by firing a torpedo down a thermal exhaust port.

Here’s my problem with this line of thinking: This is not a plot hole and it never has been.

The complaint always seems to be along the lines of, “Why would the Empire build such a huge weapon with such an obvious design flaw?” Or, “Why is the Death Star so easy to destroy?”

Well, in the first place, let’s consider the kind of story that Star Wars is. For all its spaceships and planets and rockets and laser guns and whatnot, it’s a mythic story, and most of its tropes come from mythic fantasy, not from science fiction. And in mythic fantasy, the trope of the Immense Villain with the Tiny Weakness is a very, very old one. We’re talking David-and-Goliath here, or Beowulf-and-Grendel. Odysseus versus the Cyclops. Bard versus Smaug.

The Death Star’s weakness, small and unnoticed, is perfectly in keeping with these kinds of stories. Complaining about it years later is to misunderstand the whole nature of the tale.

But here’s the other thing: the Death Star is not easily destroyed! Consider the Battle of Yavin. General Dodonna briefs the pilots:

The Empire doesn’t consider a small one-man fighter to be any threat, or they’d have a tighter defense. An analysis of the plans provided by Princess Leia has demonstrated a weakness in the battle station.

The approach will not be easy.

You are required to maneuver straight down this trench and skim the surface to this point. The target area is only two meters wide. It’s a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction which should destroy the station.

Only a precise hit will set up a chain reaction. The shaft is ray-shielded, so you’ll have to use proton torpedoes.

Remember all that? And remember the room full of pilots murmuring at the inherent difficulty of the task? Remember Wedge protesting that it was “impossible, even for a computer”?

No, the Death Star was not easily destroyed. Thirty ships made up the attack force. Only three end up returning. Of the thirty that flew, only two actually got to take a shot at the exhaust port, and only one actually hit it, and that was because that pilot had decided to use the Force instead of his computer when making the shot, and he only got to do that much because of the timely intervention of a particular space pirate.

Destroying the first Death Star was not “easy” at all, and when people imply (or state outright) that it was, it seems to me that they’re cheapening one of the great action sequences in all of movies. And that, I cannot abide.

(No, this isn’t just me defending the honor of my favorite movie, either. I can admit flaws in my favorite movies. See the Fixing the Prequels posts, or note my admission that my love of Casablanca aside, the letters of transit really are complete bullshit.)

I also think that there was probably a bit too much fanservice in Rogue One. We have Darth Vader, of course, and Governor Tarkin shows up (more than I expected, to be honest). But there are walkers in battle, and a Mon Calamari commander of the Rebel fleet. Bail Organa shows up very briefly, referring to his need to enlist an old friend of his (Obi Wan Kenobi, we assume) before saying that he has to get back to Alderaan. (We, of course, know that he will never leave.)

Some fanservice is fine, but there does get to be too much. An unnamed Rebel pilot with the Red Five call sign is shown dying, explaining how Luke Skywalker gets to have that same call sign at Yavin. Footage from A New Hope shows us Red and Blue Leaders. A land battle involves Imperial walkers. Earlier in the film, Jyn Erso bumps into someone on a crowded street, who turns out to be the very ruffians that Luke Skywalker bumped into in the cantina in A New Hope. I found a number of the callbacks distracting, and I do hope that future Star Wars films have less of that, moving forward. (The Force Awakens also had way too much fanservice for my taste.)

What does all this mean for Rogue One, then? Well, I’m not sure that the movie really needed to address the “weakness” in the Death Star at all. It really only serves to give Galen Erso a more sympathetic nature, I suppose. If not for that whole business, I wonder if audiences would have been nearly as invested in Jyn’s search for her father. I’m not sure, because the movie would be different without it. How to make Galen sympathetic if he goes along with building the Death Star? I’m honestly not sure. But anyway....

I don’t want to seem like I’m being too negative on Rogue One, because it really is an engaging movie, and probably the most directly satisfying trip to the galaxy far, far away in some time. I do wish the villains had been a bit more even, and I’m not at all sure that we needed Darth Vader at all. Those are not major complaints, though, because the movie mostly gets the story with its heroes right. It's a long movie, but I really wasn't much conscious of the running time, and as the final battle unfolded, seeing the fates of the characters unfold was still highly effecting. (None of this can possibly be a surprise, can it? In this subgenre of the war movie, it's gotta be a given that most of the heroes are going to die.)

It will be interesting to see how the future “standalone” Star Wars movies fare. The next one is the Han Solo movie, which I maintain still must be titled, Never Tell Me The Odds.



(First image credit)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Tone Poem Tuesday

No days start with "R", so I can't have "Rhapsody R-day". Thus I fold rhapsodies in with tone poems.

This work is pretty straight-forward, and it's one of my favorite pieces of all time. Emmanuel Chabrier composed this work after a visit with his wife to Spain in 1882 during which he became entranced with the rhythms of that country's folk dances. And the work is pure dance, alternating with ease between lyricism and rhythmic punch (and sometimes both), in the span of about seven minutes.

Here is Espana.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Bad Joke Friday

Long joke today!

This is a story that takes place in a world very much like our own, with one key difference.

There is a lever that, when flipped, will end the world.

No fanfare. No build-up. No warning.

Just, no more world.

The lever is located just off the side of the road in a perfectly ordinary small town in the middle of Ohio. No guards, no gate, nothing standing between it and the rest of the world.

But everyone knows that if that lever ever gets flipped, the world will end.

Needless to say, no one flips the lever.

This is also the story about a very naughty lizard named Nate.

Nate likes to cause trouble. He’s also curious. Very curious.

And he wonders, if he flips the lever, will the world really end?

Now, instead of simply wondering about it, he decides to fulfill his scientific (annoying) curiosity.

Nate decides he’s going to find out for sure.

So, Nate, who currently resides in Indiana, decides to walk to Ohio, find the lever, flip it, and see if the world really ends.

The journey is a long one. It’s the middle of winter, on top of the distance, and Nate endures harsh conditions. He makes his way through the wind and ice and snow, he survives thirty days and thirty nights in the freezing conditions. He meets many people and animals.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t learn that the real lever is the friends he’s made along the way, and continues on his quest.

Finally, after over a month of travelling, Nate sees it.

All that stands between him and the lever is a simple dirt road.

Nate begins to cross the road.

This is also the story of a man named Dave.

Dave is currently driving home after a long, hard day at work. Dave is unhappy at his job. He wants to quit and go back to graduate school, but his girlfriend Jennifer is pregnant. He knows he has a responsibility to his unborn child, so he stays at his mindless, soulless accounting job so he can provide for them.

Dave is finding a rare moment of joy in a song that just came on the radio, singing along, when he realizes that he’s about to run over a small lizard that’s crossing the road.

The only way to avoid running over the lizard is to swerve off the road. Dave considers doing this, until he sees the lever that, if flipped, will end the world.

Although Dave is a kind man, a non-violent man, as well as a noted reptile-lover, he runs over the lizard, squashing Nate flat like a pancake, and continues the drive home without another thought.

Nate is dead.

The moral of the story?
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
Better Nate than lever.

(stolen from Tumblr)

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Something for Thursday

Ye Gods, I'm getting worse and not better at posting stuff. Usual disclaimers: busy, two writing projects, lots of stuff going on at work right now (good stuff, but lots of it!), and I'm making a point to read more after a pretty cruddy year on the reading front in 2016. And I still haven't totally figured out what my own contribution to The Resistance is going to look like, but I'm gathering ideas. We'll see.

Anyway, here's a selection of music by John Williams, from the Spielberg movie Hook. I've never been the biggest fan of this movie, but the music is just wonderful.