Thursday, March 31, 2016

Something for Thursday

I don't know about you all, but in my neck of the woods, it's gloomy and rainy and I'm not finding motivation or oomph easy to come by, so here's a bit of pick-me-up music: the Light Cavalry Overture, by Franz von Suppe.

OK, that helps!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

I'm not gonna lie....

...but a big reason I want to be a writer is so that I can wear overalls and an R2-D2 scarf to work every day.

Overalls and R2D2 scarf

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Host who can Boast the Most Roast

So I saw an article last week someplace, maybe Facebook, about a recipe that had somehow gone viral: "Mississippi Roast". The recipe is insanely simple:

1. Spray your crockpot with cooking spray.
2. Throw in a chuck roast, around 3 to 4 lbs.
3. Sprinkle directly onto the meat 1 packet of gravy or au jus mix, and 1 packet of Ranch dressing mix.
4. Put a stick of butter on top of this.
5. Scatter 8-10 pepperoncini (banana peppers, pickled in a jar) around the top of the meat.
6. Cook on LOW for eight hours.

That's it.

I read the article with fascination, and then I asked people on Facebook and elsewhere if they'd ever heard of such a thing (they had), and I Googled it to see if this was real (it is). I have to admit that I was skeptical. I'm a sucker for recipes of the "Throw a small number of ingredients in the crockpot, wait six to eight hours, and eat the resulting deliciousness," but this was pushing me a little far.

But not far enough to try it.

So I did.

Here's what it looked like before I put the lid on and turned on the crockpot:

And here's the result, served alongside some roasted potato wedges:

Oh yeah babe. #yum #mississippiroast

It was amazing. I always find that pot roast needs some help in the seasoning department, but somehow this seasoning turned out perfect. The only downside? After we each had two servings of the meat, there weren't many leftovers left, and you want leftovers when the meat turns out that good. You know, sandwiches and stuff.

Next time, I'm doing two roasts.

Monday, March 28, 2016


I'm not a huge fan of Buffalo News sports reporter Bucky Gleason, but he writes a nice article today about Steve Prefontaine, the great track runner who died in a car crash 41 years ago. I'm not entirely sure of the chronology, but I think we were living in Oregon at the time. I would have been all of three years old and some change, so I had no idea about any of this, but Prefontaine worked at a sports business that went on to become Nike. I do remember something of the rise of Nike -- when we moved to Western New York in 1981, Nike was just beginning to become a national company, and I remember people around here saying "Nike" as if it rhymed with "bike".

Anyway, check out Gleason's piece.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Some Links....

A few things!

:: The tale of an awful pizza customer. Oddly, I remember a guy who was just like this! He'd stand at the counter and offer his constant input as to how his pizza should be made, and then, when leaving the place, he'd tilt the box on its side. Every friggin' time he came in. Unbelievable.

:: Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of an enormous battle that took place in the Bronze Age in northern Europe. Since it predates written history, we have no idea who fought whom and why. How much history is there that we know nothing at all about?

:: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese has changed...and nobody knew about it. Interesting stuff. (Yes, I do still like this stuff.)

:: Jason ruminates on William Shatner.

:: Finally, John Scalzi on the use of personal pronouns -- i.e., referring to people by the gender they wish.

When someone asks you to refer to them by a particular set of pronouns and you’re reluctant to comply, are you being disrespectful? Yup! Self-identity is important, and refusing to accept someone else’s identity for your own reasons will be taken to mean that you dislike or disagree with their choices about who they are. And this is your right, but it means you’re saying that your choices in this regard are more important than the choices of the person who has to live with their own identity every single moment of their lives.

Read the whole thing. We need to be making the world better.

Later, folks!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Symphony Saturday

Antonin Dvorak spent several years in the 1890s in the United States, including a time in a community of Czech immigrants in, of all places, Spillville, Iowa. I once drove through Spillville, and it's tiny -- less than 500 people live there. And yet, one of the greatest composers of all time lived there one summer, and some of his experiences there played into the music he composed while living in our country.

Dvorak felt that American music at that time was mainly concerned with echoing the Germanic symphonic traditions, with little attention paid to what he considered the true folk music of America, namely the chants of the Native Americans and the spirituals of the African-American population. He attempted to capture some of the character of those melodies in his Ninth Symphony, but what he mainly did was create new melodies based on the pentatonic scale, which does tend to be common to many aboriginal cultures of the world. There is nothing specifically American in this symphony, despite its being called "From the New World", and Dvorak himself would later insist that the symphony is a purely old-world work, composed in the old-world rhythm (particularly with regard to the use of Czech folk rhythms, something Dvorak would do his entire life), and more intended to convey the emotions Dvorak felt as a European seeing the great expanse of America for the first time.

None of that really matters, though -- whether one hears America or Prague or some blend of the two in this work, Dvorak's Ninth Symphony is one of the enduring works in all classical music, and with good reason. It is loaded with wonderful melodies (particularly that spellbinding second movement), to be sure, but it is also a superb work of musical craftsmanship as well, with every idea in its place and some of Dvorak's finest orchestrations. Here is Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E minor, "From the New World".

Friday, March 25, 2016

From the "I Can't Even" files....

A former coworker from The Store with whom I've kept in touch since she left the company dropped in yesterday to give me a small Easter gift:

An old coworker gave me a teeny-tiny coconut cream pie. I CAN'T EVEN. #pie

Yes, it's a teeny-tiny coconut cream pie.

Some of my friends know me so well!

Thoughts on THE FORCE AWAKENS, episode V: The Praise Awakens!

The Force Awakens review, parts one, two, three, and four

By this point, it probably sounds like I hate The Force Awakens and want to excise its memory from every human mind. Not so. My complaints are real, and they frustrate me to no end, because...dammit, there is just so much that this movie gets right. The Force Awakens feels to me like the filming of the third draft of a script, when it really needed a fourth.

I also suspect, in terms of the film’s refusal to explain things, that this is part of a New Media strategy for Star Wars. Remember, Disney specifically declared that the old “Extended Universe” material is no longer canon, and that everything else from now on would be. Not just the stuff in the new movies, but all of the comics now being produced, all of the novels, all of the animated teevee series, all of the events depicted in games. If all this is canon, then it’s clear that Disney can now relegated background material and its explanation to other media formats. Thus The Force Awakens can plow ahead and not tell us anything at all about this old geezer who just happens to have the piece of Luke’s map that will solve the puzzle, and then later on, they can come out with a novel or comic that explains it.

Well, I hate that. I don’t want to have to do extra research to enjoy a movie, or the reverse. If I read a novel, I shouldn’t have to go see some other movie to explain just what’s going on. I’ve no doubt that a lot of this stuff is going to be fleshed out, and I’ve little doubt that a lot of it will be in other media. And I find that incredibly irritating.

But anyway, let’s talk about what’s good with The Force Awakens, starting with the cast.

With one exception, the cast of this film is brilliant and does an amazing job. (The exception is the guy playing General Hux, with his weird blend of Hitler and Anglo-Shatner. I frankly hope that Hux is killed in the first scene of Episode VIII. Along with Captain Phasma...but her failure is one of writing, not acting. Hux is both.)

Seriously, aside from Hux, nobody in this movie turns in a bad performance. In fact, the performances are so good that they really do lift the movie above what I see as its pretty significant problems in the script. Daisy Ridley plays Rey with a nearly perfect blend of confidence in her short-term planning (once she decides to do something, she’s ruthlessly competent and very skilled at sizing up exactly what needs done), and lack of confidence in the big picture. Whenever she’s confronted with the “larger world” beyond her crappy little hole on Jakku, her confidence disappears, because she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do or want. Ridley’s performance in this movie is as perfect as it gets. I love her strength, her emotion, and her refusal to give up or withdraw into a shell when things get bad. Rey never loses her agency, and that’s really a great thing. Not even when she’s a prisoner does she lose her agency.

Likewise, John Boyega delivers a powerfully skilled performance as the “little stormtrooper who could”. It’s clear that Finn should never have been on that mission to Jakku, but he was, and that’s how a lot of stuff gets started. Finn has skill and training, but he lacks confidence and has to keep doing things like telling himself to be calm and grabbing Rey’s hand, more for his own comfort than hers. Finn is na├»ve, and in some ways he’s even a child, but he also has a lot of training and is able to call on it in a lot of situations. Best of all, when he realizes that his training is useful, there’s always this little hint of surprise in his eyes: “Hey, guys, I’m contributing!” Even when it’s something simple like “Fly low! It screws up their sensors!” or “Stormtrooper masks filter smoke, not toxins.”

Oscar Isaac is perfect as Poe Dameron. I do wish the script had given him a little more to do during the final battle than just keep saying “Hit it with everything you got!” and then deliver so supremely melodramatic a line as “As long as there’s light, we got a chance!” I don’t have any idea if they plan to go any deeper into Poe Dameron, or if he’s going to be Wedge Antilles with a bit more screentime, so we’ll see.

And yes, I know that Han had to die, because of reasons and structure and Hero’s Journeys and all that stuff. But dammit, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are just so damned perfect together. It’s a bummer that they’ll never be together again on the Star Wars stage. I love the scene when they meet each other again – “Same old jacket.” “No! New jacket.” Harrison Ford really brings his A-game here, and it’s nice to see. His self-satisfied smile as he stands in the Falcon cockpit, his look of dismay as he realizes he’s about to go right back into his old world of Luke and the Force and the rest of it...and my favorite little Solo moment, when after Kylo Ren leaves that one planet with Rey in captivity. Finn runs up to Solo and says something like “They took her! They’ve got Rey!” and Han, who has just seen his son in action and is realizing just how bad things are likely to get and knows that he’s about to be face-to-face with Leia, waves Finn off with a gruff “Yeah, yeah, I know.”

The Force Awakens is also a beautiful film. All the Star Wars movies are beautiful, really; one thing that I’ve always loved about Star Wars is that the eye candy is always beautiful and real, whether it’s the miles-high cityscapes of Coruscant or the dawn clouds of Bespin or the forests of Endor. The Force Awakens keeps this tradition going. We get a desert planet, to be sure, but this movie makes Jakku different enough that we know we’re not just on a Tatooine stand-in; this film’s forest planet is entirely different from ones we’ve seen before, and the Starkiller Station planet is icy without being Hoth again. Abrams has a strong gift for visual flare, and I’m glad that he actually made this movie look like a Star Wars movie, with ships that move with weight and with nifty things like the X-wing assault coming from low across the lake and the Millennium Falcon exploding from the trees.

I also like the film’s implications regarding Force users. The previous six films have all focused on the Jedi and the Sith, but it’s pretty much a matter of faith that there are Force users who are neither. Even the Jedi are prepared for this: in The Phantom Menace, when they learn of this kid who might have more Force-potential than anybody else ever, they’re prepared to send him back to Tatooine and be done with him. The Force, remember, is originally described to us as an energy field that surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the Galaxy together, which ought to make it much bigger than just the Jedi-Sith divide. In fact, what if the Force’s moral “sides” turn out to be less rigid than both Sith and Jedi have always thought? If so, then maybe the “awakening” of the Force, referenced in the film’s title, represents the Force itself starting to shake off the dominant narrative regarding its nature for the last thousand generations. Maybe, just maybe. And maybe not...but The Force Awakens does make some interesting leans in that direction.

What else is good in The Force Awakens? Every action sequence. I’ll give Abrams his due here: he is a very good action director. He manages kinetic energy on the screen very well, and it’s almost always easy to figure out exactly what’s going on. He also manages to make his camera do the right thing from one shot to the next, such as one time when we’re swooping around the sky with Poe, and then we cut to Finn, with the camera still swooping (albeit in closeup) as Finn cheers and shouts, “That is one hell of a pilot!” The first Millennium Falcon sequence, with the TIE Fighters in the desert, is brilliantly done, as is every action sequence in the film. This is no surprise: JJ Abrams managed the hectic action very well in both Star Trek movies (say what you will, the action sequences in those films were not poorly shot or directed) and in his Mission: Impossible movie.

What I love most about The Force Awakens will surely not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with me. John Williams’s score is fantastic. It might not be quite The Empire Strikes Back good, but it’s right up there with every other Star Wars score to date. There’s the undeniable thrill that comes with that magnificent opening fanfare and the opening crawl, but then we start getting the new dark music right off the bat, with the opening sequence – the attack on the Jakku village – culminating in a powerfully bleak motif for Kylo Ren. Next, though, comes the theme that is the heart of this film’s score: Rey’s Theme.

For Rey, John Williams spins some particularly wonderful magic. The theme is lyrical, but not in the usual Star Wars sense. The theme is beautiful, but it is also yearning and hopeful, and it bears some melodic resemblance to the famous Force Theme; more than that, Williams imbues Rey’s theme with a rhythmic sense of urgency and unrest, first with a repeating ostinato that is, in itself, quite the ear worm but later on with a churning under-rhythm that gives Rey’s theme its sense of forward motion.

The score also revisits a number of themes from the Original Trilogy: Leia’s Theme, the Love Theme for Han and Leia, and even the Imperial March, quoted when we see Vader’s wrecked mask. Williams brilliantly repurposes the old Rebel Spaceship Fanfare to stand for the Millennium Falcon herself, and the Rebel Resistance Fighters get their very own march, which is brassy and thrilling. The use of this march lends a sense of legitimacy to the Resistance: this isn’t a group of rag-tag Rebels anymore. Williams does not repurpose the Imperial March for the First Order; neither does he use the Emperor’s old theme in reference to Supreme Leader Snoke. Maybe this is by design, maybe not (recall, the old Imperial March didn’t show up until The Empire Strikes Back). The music from The Force Awakens is one of the most exciting and listenable scores I’ve encountered in years.

With all my complaints about the film’s execution in its details, I do think that it leaves things in a very intriguing place. Everything depends on the next two Episodes, obviously, but there are lot of amazing places to which Episodes VIII and IX can go, based on what’s been established here. I’m not going to make any “educated” guesses – or the other kind – as to the major questions left behind by The Force Awakens. I’m not sure if I hope Rey turns out to be a major relative of one of the beloved heroes and central families, or if I hope Rey’s parentage is similar to Taran’s in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (we never do find out who his parents are). There needs to be an explanation for who Supreme Leader Snoke is and where he came from, and if Finn is Force-sensitive, that needs explained and fleshed out as well.

What I hope does not happen is any kind of redemptive arc for Kylo Ren. We’ve gone down the “Good side to the Dark side to the Good side” road again, and somehow it will just seem a bit repetitive to do that for Kylo Ren. Besides, quite frankly...I’m not really interested in seeing the guy who killed Han Solo get any kind of reprieve, even if it is something like “Somebody has to say aboard and pilot the Death Star III into the sun! Tell my mother I love her!” or some such. Kylo Ren is not a menacing villain; he’s a pathetic one, and pathetic villains need to stay pathetic until the moment their pathetic nature takes them to ruin. Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader. He is Gollum with a better hair cut, and that’s how he needs to stay.

So, there we have it: The Force Awakens, a fun film to watch that has a lot of great things going for it and which also has a lot of things about it that are maddening. Which, I think, makes it what it is: a pretty decent Star Wars movie.

Next up: Rogue One this winter, then Episode VIII next year, and then (I think) the Han Solo “origin” movie. That could be fun, but I do hope it’s not too much origin – I wouldn’t mind just a straight-up young-Han adventure. In any case, I think a major opportunity will be missed if that film isn’t called Never Tell Him The Odds: A STAR WARS Story.

Until the next movie, Star Warriors!

Bad Joke Friday

Because some folks pointed out that I used dog meme photos the last couple of weeks....


(Although my dog doesn't drink out of the toilet. Granted, it's because he's likely unaware of the existence of the toilet, but still...!)

(Photo, and joke, stolen brazenly from here.)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Thoughts on THE FORCE AWAKENS, episode IV: That Kid Ain't Right

The Force Awakens review, parts one, two, and three

Continuing my examination of The Force Awakens, from the standpoint of character, my stance continues to be that the film does some things well, but not all of them, and not enough. This also applies to character.

(First, let me just get this out of the way: General Hux is terrible. Seriously, every time he’s on screen in this movie, I find myself wincing, worst of all during his Space Hitler speech before unleashing the Starkiller weapon. I don’t know what happened there, but Hux sux.)

(Oh wait: Captain Phasma also sucks. She’s useless and terrible. Her silver armor looks awesome, but in terms of what she gets done in the movie? She’s barely competent at all, between “I don’t know why the janitor I put on that really important mission turned out so poorly” and “Oh, you have a blaster to my head? OK, I’ll turn off Starkiller Station’s shields so your ships can take a whack at blowing it up.” Phasma is terrible. Hux and Phasma: Well, they don’t make ‘em like Grand Moff Tarkin or Admiral Piett anymore, I guess.)

A big deal was made about the movie’s return to beloved characters from the Original Trilogy. Well, Luke Skywalker doesn’t show up until the very last shots, and for the first half of the movie (before Starkiller Station takes over), he’s one Maguffin in a movie full of ‘em. Luke, like Maz, is less a character than a plot point. We’re not really told much at all about why he’s hiding on some distant planet, other than he tried training some Jedi and it went horribly wrong (the implication is that Kylo Ren slaughtered them), and he took his ball and went...someplace. Did he run away out of shame? Or is he licking his wounds until he can rise again and confront Kylo Ren? Guess what...the movie doesn’t tell us.

Then there’s his sister, Leia. She might be handled the best out of the entire batch of characters in this movie. Her place is relatively established; we know what she’s doing and what her role is. The unexplained stuff, with regard to Leia, is more about the film’s murky political stance than anything else. I honestly don’t have much problem with Leia in The Force Awakens. I like her leadership, and I like how the film didn’t make her Han Solo’s angry ex (if she’s even the ex at all).

But then there’s Han Solo. I loved seeing him again, but...well, look. I hate that he basically regressed into being a total loser after his son Ben became Kylo Ren. I really, really, really don’t like that. First, he says that “he went back to the only thing he was ever good at”, which is total BS. Han Solo was good at an awful lot of stuff, which is why he was successful, first as a smuggler (dumping his cargo at the first sign of an Imperial cruiser aside), and then as a military leader for the Rebellion. And not just when he became a General: he was a de facto Rebel leader at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back; when he decides that he has to go pay his debt to Jabba, both Leia (who isn’t owning up to being in love with him yet) and General Riekkan voice their dismay. The idea that “the only thing I was ever good at” is flying around a shitty cruiser in deep space, looking for the ship that got stolen from him, simply feels wrong.

I made this point in a few different places, and I got a similar response each time: These are realistic reactions to something traumatic happening to one’s child. They saw their beloved son turn to the Dark Side of the Force, and then Leia threw herself into her position as a military leader and Han turned into...a loser. My problem with this argument? I don’t watch Star Wars for the realistic family relationships. That’s what Battlestar Galactica is for.

None of that stuff really added up for me. It ends up negating Han’s arc from the Original Trilogy, when he went from the cynical space pirate to the man who found something to believe in. Now, we’re told, he’s lost everything he ever believed in after all. I don’t know that it had to be this way. It’s nice to see Han Solo again; he has a lot of great moments in this movie. His satisfied smile as he stands in the Millennium Falcon cockpit; his “I always thought the Force was mumbo-jumbo” speech...he has a lot of fine, fine moments. But I didn’t like his starting point.

As for his ending point...well, that brings us to Kylo Ren, doesn’t it?

I found it interesting that after years of having people tell me that one reason the Prequels are terrible is that Darth Vader is basically revealed as a whiny teenager, along comes Kylo Ren, a villain so whiny that I expected to see Tom Brady’s face beneath the mask when he removed it. Before I saw the movie, I saw all manner of commentary about how great a villain Kylo Ren is, but...well, he’s OK, but he suffers from a lot of what holds the other characters back: We don’t know who he is or what he wants.

Seriously, what is Kylo Ren trying to accomplish? Well, we know a few things: he’s looking for Luke Skywalker, presumably so he can kill him and end the Jedi, but other than that, the film leaves Ren’s motivations in the dark. Sure, he tells Darth Vader’s helmet that he will “finish what you [Vader] started”, but that scene stands by itself with no context at all, and what did Darth Vader start, anyway? What is Kylo Ren getting at, here? I honestly don’t know. Killing all the Jedi? Taking over the Galaxy? Is he plotting to destroy Supreme Leader Snoke? We don’t know. All we know is that Kylo Ren is trying to resist the “call of the light”, that he’s keenly interested in Rey, and...that’s about it, actually.

Only, that’s not it: we know that he is Han and Leia’s son, and once Han and Leia meet again and start talking, the film finally gives some explanation. Not much, but a little. Their son was apparently deeply troubled; apparently Han and Leia saw his dark potential early, and Leia sent him to Luke to be trained, in hopes that Luke would keep her son from falling to the Dark Side. Unfortunately, Luke failed, and Kylo Ren killed all of Luke’s students.

That’s a pretty interesting bit of background, isn’t it? We’re being told that Kylo Ren was born evil. Han even says, “He had too much Vader in him.” But they still believe that he can turn back the Force’s good side. Leia hasn’t given up, and neither has Han, because when he has the chance, he goes to confront his son.

The problem here is that we’re given nothing to go on, regarding how and why Kylo Ren fell to the Dark Side. The nature of his temptation is neither explained nor even hinted at, which ends up making me feel like Kylo Ren is here because it’s a Star Wars movie and by God, you have to have a bad guy with a red lightsaber. It’s Star Wars law. Nothing is fleshed out about Kylo Ren in any way, except that he’s evil, he’s tempted by good, and he has a pair of very famous parents.

Maybe this doesn’t seem important, but to me, it is. Character motivations matter. Character histories matter. Again, we don’t need a half-hour of Kylo Ren’s history to establish any of this; leaving details in the dark is entirely permissible. This film, however, once again gives us nothing to go on. And if you respond “Well, the Original Trilogy never established how Darth Vader was tempted!”, I’d say you’re partially right, and so what? The OT had the task of establishing all of this stuff, so the point of establishing Vader in A New Hope as a fallen Jedi isn’t so much to say something about Vader but to say something about the Force and what can happen when its power is misused. Evil is established as a tempting thing. By the time we’re into our seventh movie about this stuff, though, that’s a given. Why did Vader want power? The Prequels give us very real reasons for that. Seriously, though: ask these questions. What does Kylo Ren want, and why does he want it?

The movie doesn’t answer these questions, and in my opinion as a writer, those are the most important questions that one can ever ask about a fictional character. The only time anything every really crystallizes in terms of what Kylo Ren wants is when he is finally confronted by his father.

This is clearly the film’s most interesting scene. The way it’s written, the scene makes us think (or tries to, anyway) that Kylo Ren is fighting the Dark Side, and that he needs his father’s help to turn back to the light. Unfortunately, we realize all too late that it’s the exact other way around: Kylo Ren wants to renounce the good side completely, and he can only do this by killing his father.

This is interesting because it’s a reverse of Return of the Jedi, isn’t it? Back then, in order for Luke to finally become a Jedi, to lay claim to his destiny, both Yoda and Obi Wan tell him that he has to confront Vader. The meaning of this is not lost on Luke, and he protests: “I can’t kill my own father.” To Luke, the very idea is evil and horrible, even though Obi Wan is insistent, first saying “You must face Darth Vader again,” and then sighing and concluding that everything is lost when Luke says that he can’t do it. For Luke, killing his own father is unthinkable, and this is reinforced when the Emperor continually goads Luke into attacking.

Thirty years later, though, here is Kylo Ren faced with the same task: he has been told that he has to kill his father in order to complete his own Force journey, but his is toward the Dark side. For Kylo Ren, killing his father is the ultimate act of evil, the point beyond which he can never turn back toward the light once he does it. And kill Han Solo he does, running him through with his brilliant red lightsaber.

This moment was not a shock to me, owing partly to my general unavoidance of spoilers at the time (I wasn’t seeking spoilers out, but I generally don’t care all that much if someone “spoils” a story for me, as “finding out what happens next” is only one reason for following a story, and hardly the most important one) and to my general familiarity with the Star Wars approach to the Campbellian story structure. Han Solo was cast as this film’s Old Mentor, and the Old Mentor always has to die. The only real mystery was in how it would happen: would he sacrifice his life to destroy Starkiller Station? Would something else happen?

The death of Han Solo was a sharp moment in the film, which is why it’s too bad the film basically ignores it afterward. Yes, it does. Han is never mentioned by name again after he dies. There is some initial wailing and crying, by Rey and Finn and Chewbacca; on the Rebel Base Resistance Base, Leia gets this look like she’s just been clubbed in the if three voices have suddenly cried out in terror, a disturbance in the Force...and that’s about it. Leia and Rey share a crying embrace when Rey finally arrives at the Resistance base, but as the two haven’t even met until then, the moment doesn’t feel “real” to me. Han is never mentioned by name again in the film after Kylo Ren runs him through, and worst of all? Chewbacca’s grief is never dealt with.

At the moment it happens, Chewbacca wails and starts blasting everything he can and he detonates the charges...and then? That’s it. No acknowledgment of Chewie’s horror at seeing this man with whom he’s lived so much of his life, with whom he has shared so much, die in such a fashion. And consider: that’s Han Solo’s son killing him. Chewie would have known young Ben Solo. He would have once considered Ben Solo a friend, as much a part of his family as Leia or Luke or...Han himself. I grant that the movie can’t stop in the middle of the Starkiller Station battle to give Chewie much more than a few howls, but afterward? No funeral? No ceremony of remembrance? No one going to cry on Chewie’s shoulder and vice versa? Not even a mention of Han Solo or of the act of evil that took him?

I’m sorry, but that’s pretty weak tea, and it reduces Han’s death – which is a powerful, powerful moment – to little more than a required plot point, and this movie does an awful lot of reducing what should be important characters and things to mere plot points.

(Interesting thought I had after seeing an amazing Kylo Ren cosplay on Tumblr: What if Kylo Ren had been a woman? That might have been interesting. We’ve had a lot of father-and-son stuff in Star Wars; maybe it’s time to explore the mother-daughter dynamic in terms of the Force and whatnot. Of course, maybe that’s where they’re going with Rey, but by being all coy with the whole “We have to hide her real identity for at least another movie!” bullshit, Kasdan-and-Abrams-and-company write themselves out of some very interesting story possibilities. It doesn’t all have to be about saving the revelations for later, folks.)

Ultimately, I think that’s my problem with the approach to character in The Force Awakens. Motivations are muddy and unexplored. Histories are left in abeyance all over the place. It’s the same problem with the plot in general: Very little is explained. How long are we supposed to wait for the explanations? Storytelling is far, far more than just a matter of making sure you have a lot of revelations to unveil toward the end of your tale, and the way this is shaping up, the last third of Episode IX is going to feel like the biggest episode of Scooby Doo ever, with masks being ripped off to reveal Old Man Carruthers all over the place. I really am getting sick of the "We have to keep our secrets as long as humanly possible!" approach to storytelling. It's ruined a lot of teevee shows that just had to have their big long secret-filled mytharcs, it's ruined book series that end up treading water while we wait for the Big Reveals, and now it's in danger of ruining Star Wars.

It’s too bad, too, because it means that JJ Abrams won out in establishing the film’s storytelling. Lawrence Kasdan isn’t perfect, but when it comes to character, he’s better than this.

To be concluded with some actual praise for this movie! No, it ain't all bad, folks -- there's a lot that I really did like about The Force Awakens, and I'll get into that in this post series's finale!

Part Five: It Ain't All Bad

Something for Thursday

When in need of musical balm, and when in doubt of where to seek it...turn to Russia. At least, that's how it's always been with me.

There's just something about the Russian musical character that grabs me whenever I hear one of the greats. There's this quality of epic brooding, but there's also heartfelt if they're allowing themselves just a moment of optimism here and there. Russian music always has an exotic quality to it, as the European and the Asian souls meet somewhere in the middle. Occident and Orient come together and make for something often magical.

I heard this work the other morning on the radio, and I'd forgotten about it until then. It's the Suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, and like every Rimsky-Korsakov work, it's full of exotic wonder, excitement, and lyrical song-like passages. Listen to this and tell me that it doesn't take you somewhere!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Thoughts on THE FORCE AWAKENS, Episode III: Poe, Rey, Me (or, the Whodats and the Waddadaywants)

The Force Awakens review, parts one and two

So, if I found the basic story bones of The Force Awakens unsatisfying on a lot of levels, what about the other area where the film has been picking up major praise: its characters?’s actually a lot better in that regard than its main story. But I still have problems.

Let’s start with our new hotshot pilot, Poe Dameron. We meet him very early in the film, since he’s the one General Leia Organa has sent to fetch the map from the old dude whose name is never mentioned. (Yes, I know that he has a name and that it’s probably in the credits and that it’s something like Los Mekka Ban or Los Lobos Bananas or something like that, but he’s not important and frankly he’s not even a character so much as a plot device, so I’ll just call him “Abner Ravenwood”.) We get some nice glimpses of Poe’s personality here: he genuinely seems to care about his droid, telling BB8 that he’ll be back for him, and he’s calm in the face of a sudden crisis. This is a fellow who has been through a lot of fighting and battling, and nothing much phases him, not even being forced to his knees in front of Kylo Ren.

There’s something else I found interesting about Poe Dameron, though: he is very quick to size up any particular situation and decide his course of action. At no point in the film does Poe look flummoxed, or at a loss as to what to do next. He sizes up Finn almost immediately; he calmly figures out how to fly a ship with which he’s unfamiliar; he manages to get himself from being lost in the middle of a desert back home. Poe Dameron is confident and competent, but he never seems particularly cocky about it, which is interesting.

And, as our next character tells us, he is “one hell of a pilot.” And if there’s one thing that a good Star Wars story always needs, it’s a character who is one hell of a pilot. If the movie walks right up to the brink of adding a CGI twinkle to Poe's eye, well...fine.

That brings us to Finn. I love this guy. John Boyega plays him almost perfectly. Boyega nails every one of Finn’s emotions, so we know that he is really feeling the things he is feeling. (I know, that’s not a very good way of putting it, but we’re gonna go with it.)

The problem with Finn is that, like so much of this story, things about him aren’t explained sufficiently for them to make sense.

Late in the film, Finn admits that his job on Starkiller Station was sanitation. This is probably intended mostly as a joke, so we can see the look on Han Solo’s face when he realizes that everything is hanging on the actions of an Imperial First Order janitor. Still, I didn’t have a problem with that, really. In fact, I didn’t have a problem with that at all. After all, why not? We’ve already had a moisture farmer save the Galaxy, so why not a janitor?

The problem here is that if you’re going to posit that Finn was a janitor, then you have to explain in some way just why he was in the contingent of stormtroopers being sent on a mission led by Kylo Ren himself to hopefully recover a very important artifact. Otherwise, you’ve got a janitor being sent along to blow up the Guns of Navarone, and that doesn’t work:

GREGORY PECK: Who’s that guy?

DAVID NIVEN: He’s a janitor.

PECK: What’s his specialty?

NIVEN: He cleans the toilets.

PECK: But in terms of this mission--

NIVEN: He’s useless, sir.

Here’s this incredibly important mission, which Kylo Ren thinks sufficiently important to threaten Space Hitler General Hux while possibly disobeying Supreme Leader Snoke, and in the relatively small group of stormtroopers is a guy who seems to be seeing his first action ever. Does that seem right? Maybe it does...if the film establishes Finn as some kind of special stormtrooper. Of course, we see that he is, but why do the Imperials First Order folks?

And like always, this could be done so easily! Just slip a line or two into the scene where Kylo Ren and Space Hitler General Hux question Captain Phasma about him:

PHASMA: FN-2187. He reported to my division for reconditioning.

HUX: Has he shown any signs of insubordination?

PHASMA: This is his first offense.

HUX: It says here that the Jakku village was his first action. Why would you assign so inexperienced a soldier to such an important mission, Captain?

PHASMA: He has been training heavily. His aptitude marks are off the charts. There was nothing in his profile to indicate any such moral questioning of the Order.

HUX: There is now.

See? Just like that you establish that Finn’s special (for some reason), give him a bit of history, and so on. But the movie didn’t bother. Instead, Finn’s allegiances and motivations are pretty sketchy throughout the entire film. That doesn’t have to be a problem, but absent some more explanatory material and heavy lifting by the script, it is. Maybe it sounds like I’m quibbling and splitting hairs, but I don’t think so.

Consider: Finn tells us that he has never known any family or any life outside of the First Order. The implication is that the Order is taking babies and literally raising them to become stormtroopers. Finn doesn’t tell us that he once had a name but they took it from him; he tells us that he’s never had any other name outside of his alphanumerical identifier within the Order. What’s more, Captain Phasma tells us that he’s never shown any signs of insubordination until his break from the Order. This either implies that there’s something very special about Finn, or that there’s something very overrated about Imperial First Order indoctrination techniques. His break comes from seeing a single one of his combat mates killed and leaving a smear of blood on his helmet.

That’s not all about Finn, though, and while his background is problematic given the way the script handles it, there are other fascinating things about him. Finn seems to latch onto new friends as soon as he meets them, forming emotional bonds very quickly. Is this a fault? I don’t know. I’m not inclined to think so just yet. It may be a part of who he is, which would be interesting; that stormtrooper who dies on Jakku, wiping his own blood on Finn’s mask – what if he’s a friend Finn had just met? That would be interesting, but if that aspect of his character vanishes forever, then I may have to suspect that his insta-bonding with Poe and then Rey was just a plot contrivance. And that would be a pity.

(By the way, to step away from character for just a moment...we're never given a timeframe for how long it's been since Return of the Jedi, but I'm assuming it's roughly thirty years. Well, we're told that all of these First Order goons were taken from their families and raised as stormtroopers. That's a hell of a lot of stormtroopers, innit? Wouldn't the Republic notice something like thousands of babies being stolen from someplace? Then again, maybe not, because they also didn't notice a planet being reworked into Death Star 3.0. Anyway....)

And then there’s Rey.

Who is she? We know virtually nothing about her. We meet her as a scavenger, digging through old, crashed Star Destroyers for parts that she thinks are valuable. Is she a mercenary in this? Not quite, because there’s a brief throwaway scene that shows her scrubbing the parts she’s found, in a very slave-like way. Not to say that she’s a slave, but she is clearly in thrall to the partsmonger (whose name I don’t recall and am not looking up).

In terms of exposition, Rey is probably the best thing in the movie. She’s very skilled at getting around, she knows what she’s looking for and how to get it, and she’s willing to work very hard at it. The fact that nobody else is scavenging the ships that she is scavenging suggests that it takes a very good scavenger to get at the parts that are worth anything at all, but it’s too bad the film’s dialogue doesn’t give any kind of confirmation. She just plunks her parts on the counter, the partsmonger gives her “portions”, and that’s it. But why not:

PARTSMONGER: And what have we today? More parts from that old Star Destroyer?

REY plunks the parts on the counter.

PARTSMONGER: Ohhh...impressive. Lots of old pilots swear by these. I figured they were all gone from that wreck.

REY: I know where to look. No one else even tries.

PARTSMONGER: These are portion.

Some gibbering weirdos online have suggested that Rey is too talented, to the point that it makes her a “Mary Sue” (which is not quite the standard use of that term, but whatever). The piloting issue could have been dealt with better, but the mechanic stuff? That’s pretty obvious from what we see early on. As for her Force abilities...well, more on that in a bit.

Rey informs BB-8 (and, therefore, us) that she’s been separated from her family for a very long time. This is a little hard to swallow, but fine. We’re given no reason for her to have not given up on them, just that she hasn’t given up on them.

Worse, though, is that the film never really gives us any idea of what Rey wants.

Characters need to want things. They need to be motivated. What motivates Rey? I have no idea. She seems to have no motivation other than to stay put and wait for her family. Over the course of the film, this doesn’t change much, at least until the film’s very end, when she seems to want something very much...but what? We’re not really told. The implication is that she wants Luke to teach her to use the Force, but that’s a supposition, really. She might want something completely different.

Her Force-abilities come out of nowhere, jump-started by Luke’s lightsaber (again, in a moment that is not explained at all, so much so that it just feels like a plot contrivance to me), and later brought forward by Kylo Ren’s mental maneuvering. The film doesn’t state this outright, either, but it makes sense: Rey doesn’t really start to do impressive things with the Force until Ren goes playing around in her head. I actually don’t have a problem with Rey discovering that she’s had latent Force-abilities all along, but again, it would have been nice if the script had taken a little more effort to establish this.

So we have two main characters – Rey and Finn – who are clearly at the start of an arc of some sort, but we don’t really know much at all about that because we have no idea what those two characters want. Finn spends most of the movie being motivated to get away from the Empire First Order, but when Rey gets captured, his motivation is now to rescue her. But what about after that? At the end of the film, has he bought into the Republic Resistance? We don’t know, because he’s knocked unconscious during the last battle and never talks again. As for Rey’s arc – again, we have no idea what she wants. Her missing family is never mentioned again after Maz tells her that “whoever you’re waiting for isn’t coming back”, but we don’t really get any idea of what’s motivating her after that, other than getting away from Kylo Ren. She has Force power, but does she want to learn to use it? We have no idea. A New Hope gives Luke Skywalker a line when his old world is destroyed and he’s forced onto his Campbellian path: “I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.” What do Rey and Finn want as the film ends? We simply don’t know, and that bothers me. Characters need to have motivations. Characters need to want things.

Rey’s arc, such as it is, seems to me to bear a bit of resemblance to another arc in another story, in which a young girl whose name starts with ‘R’ learns more and more about her latent abilities, attracts the keen interest of malevolent forces, uncorks a huge amount of whoop-ass on unsuspecting villains, and in the end becomes the pilot of a beloved spaceship after that ship’s pilot has died. Rey, in a lot of ways, is River Tam from Firefly.

(And while I’m on the subject, JJ Abrams missed a big emotional moment. When Finn and company find Rey on Starkiller Station, and Finn says “We came back for you,” that should be a huge moment. Rey has waited her whole life for someone to come back for her, and now, someone has. But Abrams lets the moment slide by with a quick hug.)

Rey and Finn kick a lot of ass, they have great chemistry, and...well, that’s about it. Kicking a lot of ass, in itself, does not a great character make. They are engaging and interesting characters, but ultimately they fall a bit flat because we don't know what their motivations are or their desires or what they hope to accomplish. They're basically sympathetic characters, not very well fleshed out, who are along for the ride in a story that is itself not very well fleshed out.

And that's a shame, because they're still really fun to watch.

This entry is long enough by now, so I’ll continue discussing character in The Force Awakens in another post.

Part Four: That Kid Ain't Right

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

When the Sky Gods take pity

Sometimes, when I'm driving in to work for a long shift on a cold Tuesday, the Sky Gods take pity and give me something pretty to look at.

Like this:

Sunrise this morning #sunrise #sky

Thank you, Sky Gods!

Thoughts on THE FORCE AWAKENS, Episode II: Wait, what?! (or: Stop me if you've seen this movie before!)

Might as well jump in with my biggest problem with The Force Awakens, right? Well, as I watched the movie the first time, and again the second time, and again still the third time, I found myself saying the same two words over and over and over again:

“Wait, what?

Take it from me, folks: in any kind of storytelling endeavor, be it a movie or a novel or a teevee show or comic book or anything at all, you do not want your audience saying “What, what?” a lot. If you can avoid it at all, great, because every “Wait, what?” constitutes a moment when your audience has left the story and is instead trying to piece together the logic of your tale. “Wait, what?” makes things difficult. “Wait, what?” is a thing to be avoided.

But The Force Awakens is full to overflowing with “Wait, what?” moments, and every single one of them made me crazy, because I do not want to be sitting there watching a Star Wars movie and thinking “Wait, what?” all the time.

The first “Wait, what?” happens in the movie’s opening minutes. We’ve seen the opening crawl, and the ominous sight of a NextGen Star Destroyer crossing in front of a planet. We’ve seen Imperial First Order troop transports, loaded with stormtroopers on their way to engage. Then we’re in some dusty village where everyone lives underneath tents, and in one particular tent, some old dude is handing a flash drive to some Rebel New Republic Resistance pilot, saying something about “This will make things right” and mentioning the “Balance of the Force”. The flash drive, we will learn soon enough, contains a piece of a map that leads to the location of Luke Skywalker.

This is quite the Maguffin, and that is about as much explanation as we get for it. At all. Why does this map exist? Who made it? Why is it a fragment? Almost none of this is explained. Based on the little bits of context the movie provides in two different conversations that come much later in the movie, I am guessing that the map shows the locations of Jedi Temples which are in systems not known on any charts, so without any names, you have no idea what you’re looking at. If you use this fragment with the rest of the map, you can figure out which is the first Jedi Temple, which is where Luke might have said he was going.

This doesn’t really make sense, though, does it? The fragment contains other stars and systems too, so how hard would it be to match the known systems in the fragment map to charts of the known Galaxy, and then use that information to figure out where the uncharted systems are?

This does seem to me to be an interesting call-back to Attack of the Clones, however, because part of that film’s plot hinged on the deletion of a particular star system from the Republic’s maps. Also, while it’s never stated outright, it’s heavily implied in The Empire Strikes Back that Dagobah does not appear on standard charts either. So there is precedent for this, but the movie doesn’t give enough to go on, and what it does give, it gives in throwaway lines that are so quick, you miss them.

More problematic is the old guy. Who the hell is he? What’s he doing with this piece of map? Where did he get it? The film doesn’t answer any of that at all, and needs to. It doesn’t have to give the entire backstory of this fellow, but there has to be something. There’s a very old meme in adventure stories, where the old grizzled treasure-hunter shows up with the treasure map and hands it off to Our Hero before dying of the knife in his back or whatever, and that would be OK. This could even be set up with a few lines of dialogue. But instead, the movie implies other things about this guy. He’s got a personal stake here. He is invested. His delivering of this map to Poe Dameron is a moral act, and a few minutes later, when he knows he is doomed, he mouths off to Kylo Ren. Now this fellow is actually interesting, but the movie blows him off, so he’s not a character. He’s a plot convenience.

And now that our Rebel Resistance hero has the Info That The Empire First Order wants, and he’s about to get captured, what does he do with it? He sticks it into his trusty astromech droid and sends the droid out into the wilderness of a desert planet. This brings us to another big problem with this movie: “Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.”

A lot of my problems with The Force Awakens boil down to either “Wait, what?” or “Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.”

We’re on a desert planet, called Tatooine Jakku, where apparently some massive battle took place, to judge from the wreckage littering the planet surface. Nevertheless, there are these enormous machines and ships, full of parts and metal that are worth money, and...exactly one scavenger digging through it all. What gives with that? What economy is this? Is Jakku an important world in any way? We never know. It’s just a backdrop.

Which brings me to another series of “Wait, what?!” questions. This film’s worldbuilding is awful, and I hate to say that, but it is.

Let’s look back at A New Hope. Everything is explained very clearly and elegantly: there’s a Galactic Empire, and there’s a Rebellion. That’s it. Simple, easy. We know how powerful the Empire is, and we know that the Rebellion is just getting started but is still very fragile. We also know that the Empire hasn’t been around all that long, by virtue of the Emperor having only now been able to get rid of the Senate (a move that is met with skepticism by the Emperor’s own flag officers). In a fairly small amount of dialog and exposition, we learn a lot about the political state of affairs as A New Hope begins.

Contrast that with The Force Awakens, which gives us the First Order which is apparently rising from the ashes of the Empire...but how? How big is it? How strong are they? How big is the Republic and how strong is it? Why is the Resistance seemingly a totally separate thing from the Republic? How is the First Order strong enough to build a weapon that can wipe out the Republic with one shot? What does the loss of Starkiller Station mean to the First Order, and what does the loss of Coruscant the Hosnian System mean to the Republic which may or may not be part of the Resistance (oh wait, reverse that).

We know who the “bad guys” are, but that’s not really enough, because no real goals are ever discussed for either the good guys or the bad guys, other than some very Hitler-ian scenery-chewing by General Hux and the requisite “We’re doomed!” from the Resistance, unless they can figure out how to dismantle the Starkiller Station. (That nobody ever raises their hand and says, “Maybe we just go someplace else until we figure out how to destroy it?” is also annoying.)

But back to Jakku, where our friendly important-data-carrying droid is rescued by a local, who then takes the droid on as a companion while she waits for a family that isn’t coming back. Why is she still waiting after all these years (which she has even marked, day-by-day, on her wall)? Who knows. The movie isn’t going to explain that, because JJ Abrams really loves his mysteries and not explaining things. This is not new; it is, in fact, one of his most maddening habits as a storyteller.

Along the way we meet Kylo Ren, who thinks that finding the map to Luke Skywalker (who, for a missing guy, sure seems well-known by everybody) is so important that he has an entire Star Destroyer attached to the job, including General Hux, the military leader of the entire First Order. That strikes me as strange, since in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we don’t have Hitler himself digging in the sands of Tanis. What’s up with that, Lawrence Kasdan? You wrote both films.

The Millennium Falcon is there on Jakku, sitting in a junkyard? Well, OK...we get a quick explanation of this from Han Solo, in which he lists the last four people who have successively stolen the ship. That’s fine, although conceptually...well, it seems to me that the Falcon should be berthed in the Coruscant version of the Smithsonian. But instead, here it is, waiting to be flown by Rey, who hasn’t shown a single hint of being a good pilot until this moment. This isn’t a fatal thing, really; A New Hope commits the same mistake, positing several times that Luke Skywalker is a great pilot, for which we never see any evidence until he straps in to fight the Death Star. So I’ll allow this, but it’s still maddening, because all it takes is a simple exchange:

FINN: How did you know how to fly this ship?

REY: It’s been sitting on that lot for years. I like to sneak in and...pretend.

FINN: Not even pretending could make you fly it that well.

REY: Huh.

Not everything has to be explained, but a little acknowledgment of the mystery goes a long way.

(And for that matter: Does it strike anyone else as odd that Poe Dameron takes this potential traitor stormtrooper at face value? That he doesn’t even question it when this stormtrooper says, “I want you to fly me out of here!”?)

Also note that about this point, our Maguffins change. The map to Luke takes a back seat, and we’re instead trying to figure out where the Resistance base is. Why does the Resistance need a secret, hidden base that the First Order can’t find? Who knows...but A New Hope had that same thing, so we have to have it here, too. Never mind that it made sense in the earlier film.

We meet Han Solo – I’ll have more to say about his reversion post-ROTJ from respected General to “loser who owes lots of people money and can’t get his shit together" later – who gruffly escorts Rey and Finn to Endor some forest planet, where they go to a bar so they can meet Maz, who will somehow help them get to the Resistance in the...whatever system it’s in. If there’s an explanation for this detour, I missed it...maybe something about how apparently the Millennium Falcon is the single most traceable ship in the universe now, for some reason. (This makes no sense. Han says that it those criminal gangs were able to find him by tracing the Falcon then the First Order must be coming too, but why would they have been searching for Han by looking for the Falcon, which hasn’t been in his possession in years? That would be like trying to track me down by searching for the Volkwagen Rabbit I drove in 1996.)

Of course, the only reason for any of this is to bring Maz into the story, so she can serve as Force-mystic. Fine; we have to have a Force-mystic of some sort...but she serves absolutely zero purpose other than to be a Force-mystic. Seriously: the only reason she's in this movie is to jumpstart Rey on her Force-journey. In this five-minute sequence, we cram in all of the first steps in Rey’s Campbellian journey: her Call to Adventure, her Supernatural Aid, her Refusal of the Call. Who is Maz? The film has no interest in telling us. And in what might be the most jaw-dropping of the movie’s “Wait, what?!” moments, we learn that Maz has been keeping Luke’s original lightsaber, the one that was Anakin’s, in a box n her basement. Probably next to her piles of old newspapers and Galactic Geographics.

Look, I really don’t mean to snark here, but...that moment really bothered me, because it had no explanation and no set-up. Last time we saw that lightsaber, it was tumbling into the central reactor shaft on Cloud City after Darth Vader had lopped off Luke’s hand. There must be a hell of a story involved in that lightsaber’s presence in Maz’s basement, but we don’t get it...or even a hint of it. We do get Maz saying basically, “It’s a long story and I don’t have time,” which is...well, look. That sucks. It’s terrible. That lightsaber is one of the iconic artifacts of the Star Wars story, and just sticking it in there with no explanation at all is incredibly lame. It’s a moment that had me wondering if Abrams and Kasdan even cared about the internal logic of their story. To draw a parallel to an earlier Kasdan script, it's as if Indiana Jones shows up in Egypt to look for the Ark, finds the Map Room, despairs of figuring out how to use it, and only then does Marion show up, unintroduced, to hand him the Headpiece to the Staff of Ra and say, "Use this."

This is where we get our first hint that Rey is Force-sensitive, by the way – in the middle of this entire sequence that has no backing from the larger tale.

And worse, now we have not one but two Maguffins in this movie, neither one of which has any kind of explanation that really helps. The “map to Luke Skywalker” gets a little bit of explanation, but it’s split up all over the movie. Han Solo tells us that when Luke vanished, he might have been looking for “the first Jedi Temple” (why? Don’t ask), so maybe the map isn’t so much a map to Luke as it’s a map to what Luke was looking for. A little later on, C-3PO indicates that the locations on the map seem to be uncharted star systems, so it’s a map devoid of context or starting point.

Hey! Maybe there’s a dead knight in that Jedi Temple whose grave is carved with the name of the planet where the map starts! Well, wrong movie, but the whole “two unexplained maguffins” thing feels like if Raiders of the Lost Ark had sent Indiana Jones after “the lost Ark” without telling us what the Ark is, and then halfway through, had the Holy Grail show up.

Now there’s a Godawful sequence in which the Empire First Order fires its superduperhyperspecial weapon, the Starkiller Station (after General Hux delivers one of the worst Evil Military Leader speeches I’ve ever seen in a movie). It apparently fires multiple blasts at once, and apparently the blasts travel through hyperspace, to destroy a bunch of planets at once, including the planet where the Republic is based. It’s the destruction of Alderaan, amped up to eleven, complete with horrified people on the doomed planet watching the Death Ray coming down to incinerate them.

Big Imperial weapon blows up planet as demonstration of its awful might.

Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before.

And the sequence is a partial call-back to something that got a lot of criticism in an earlier Abrams movie, Star Trek 2009, which gave us Spock standing on a planet in another solar system watching as Vulcan got destroyed, as if a planet in another solar system is still close enough to look bigger than Earth’s moon. It was bullshit then, and it’s bullshit in this movie too. Our heroes look on in horror at the sky as the Starkiller (in another star system!) fires its weapon to destroy some other planets (also in another star system!).

Wait, fucking what.

It was nonsense in Star Trek and it’s nonsense here.

Look, no one expects massive amounts of scientific accuracy in a Star Wars movie, but you can’t just rub our noses in it, either. If the Death Star showed up right this second and blew up planets in the Alpha Centauri system, we wouldn’t see a damn thing for four years. I find it hard to believe JJ Abrams didn’t craft this sequence as a specific “Eff you!” to the people who criticized his Star Trek movie.

And now, let’s talk about Starkiller Station. It’s a planet-destroying space station carved out of a planet itself (Wait, what?), that drains energy from its sun (wait, what?) and can apparently fire through hyperspace to destroy planets in other star systems (wait, what?). Does it drain its sun entirely and then it has to relocate? How is the First Order, which is nowhere near as big as the Empire was, able to build something that’s orders of magnitude bigger than either Death Star? And if they can do that...well, I’m reminded of critiques of SPECTRE in the James Bond movies: Why would an organization with enough money to run these schemes (such as carving a rocket station out of a volcano) go to such criminal lengths to make more money, when clearly they could just make all the money in a legit way?

But I digress. Starkiller Station bothered me, and not just on story terms. It’s something of an article of faith among many Star Wars fans that Return of the Jedi is when George Lucas started losing it, when he got greedy and just wanted to make toys, and when he lost all storytelling sense and just gave us another lazy Death Star. I don’t agree with any of these, but they’re real things that you hear a lot in talking about these movies.

A second Death Star in ROTJ? Uncreative laziness. A third one, even bigger, in The Force Awakens? Well now, see, we’ve been hating on Lucas and so we have to love this non-Lucas Star Wars movie, so out come a lot of very goofy arguments like “These stories are based on mythology which is often cyclical so it’s OK to have the same story beats recur.”

My reply? No, it isn’t.

Lucas told three very different stories in the Prequel Trilogy, but he managed then to have Anakin face the same kinds of choices that Luke had to later make, thus casting Anakin’s fall and Luke’s rise against each other. That’s the mythical recurrence, not the constant reliance on Death Stars. But the entire last act of the movie is all about Starkiller Station, and we pretty much stop caring entirely about either of the two Maguffins that dominated the film’s first two acts, the map and the lightsaber.

And how does the Starkiller Station tale come out? Well, we have to identify a weakness in the station’s design. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.) The weakness will make the station unstable and destroy it. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.) But the Station is heavily shielded, so Han Solo will have to spearhead a small mission to deactivate the shields. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.) When that’s done, the X-Wings will have to make a heroic attack run to exploit the weakness. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.) As the battle happens, there will be a countdown until the station can fire on the Rebel Resistance base. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.) And all the while, Princess Leia (now General Organa) will stand around a tactical display table, looking concerned. (Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.)

I’m sorry, but this entire sequence – which is meant to be the Big Climax – really sucked the wind out of whatever story was left. It goes on too long, it alternates between yuk-yuk laughs and Big Emotional Beats, and worst of all, it contains nothing that we’ve never seen before in a Star Wars movie. I have no idea why Abrams and Kasdan felt the need to do the movie this way, but Ye Gods, you know what would have been awesome? A Star Wars road/quest picture, in which all these people are seeking the clues to the location of the Last Jedi Knight. Instead, that story is set aside and we get yet another SuperDuper SpaceFortress whose destruction is nowhere near as tense as the first two (especially the first one), because there’s no real sense of what they’re trying to do other than “Hit it over and over again with everything you’ve got,” as Poe Dameron tells us at least three times. In the original Death Star sequence, way back in A New Hope, there was a lot of tension because there was a time factor and because someone had to hit a target that was very hard to hit in that short time. Here, the approach is literally, “We’ll just blast it a lot in hopes that we blast it enough in our allotted time to destroy it.”

One scene in this whole sequence really bugged me: the deactivation of the shields themselves. Chewbacca gets the drop on Captain Phasma, and then Han and Finn get her to do their bidding with so little effort that I literally thought of a scene in The Princess Bride at this point. And if you’re trying to make a seriously engrossing adventure space opera epic, you do not want me thinking of The Princess Bride:

YELLIN is pressed against the main gate. WESTLEY, INIGO, and FEZZIK close in.

WESTLEY: Give us the gate key.

YELLIN: (every ounce of honesty he’s got) I have no gate key.

INIGO: Fezzik, tear his arms off.

YELLIN: Oh, you mean this gate key.

Everything ends up OK, though, kinda-sorta. The Empire First Order gets its ass kicked and loses its SuperDuper SpaceFortress, but they’ll live to fight another day. The Resistance? Well, they’ve won, but apparently the Republic has just been destroyed, so who knows, since they seem to consist at the end of the film of a few dozen fighters. The future is clouded, and the Empire First Order is almost certainly gearing up to strike back. Stop me if you’ve seen this flick before.

Oh yeah, that guy. Who's he? Dunno. Heaven forbid the movie tell us.

I’ve also heard a lot of arguments excusing the incredible lack of exposition in The Force Awakens by appealing to A New Hope, which likewise dropped viewers into a story in medias res, and only filled in details as it went. The big citation here is the single-line mention of “the Clone Wars”, which are never explained until decades and four movies later. Thing is, the Clone Wars are not especially relevant to A New Hope; what matters is that Luke’s father was not a freighter pilot but rather a Jedi Knight who fought in the most recent Big War. The unexplained stuff in The Force Awakens, however, really is important to the story. It matters how Luke’s old lightsaber just shows up out of the blue. It matters why the Millennium Falcon has been sitting in a trash-heap for years, and why Rey can fly it. The Force Awakens is a JJ Abrams story through-and-through: not explaining stuff has been his stock in trade for years. And hey, he’s successful. Doesn’t mean I have to like that aspect of what he does. The only time this habit of his has really worked, in my opinion, is in the Mission: Impossible movie he directed, where the good guys and bad guys spend the entire movie vying for possession of a computer drive or something – and at the very end, when Tom Cruise has saved the day, he says to his boss, “So what’s on this hard drive, anyway?” That worked there, though, in an odd way, given the nature of intelligence communities, where it's often the game that matters more than the object. Here...not so much.

(And gee, how does R2-D2 know exactly when to awaken and cough up the rest of the map? And if he has the map...R2's a machine. Is there no tech-geek in the Resistance who can hack into R2 and get the damn map? The answer to that is, of course, No, and to the prior question, R2 knows when to wake up because that's when the movie needs him to wake up. This is lazy storytelling of the, dare I say it, first order.)

As for Lawrence Kasdan, well – I would accuse him of knowing better, but then, in his most famous and successful script prior to this one, he failed to explain just how Indy knew that looking on the power of the Ark was a bad idea and used units of measurement that imply that Indy is four feet tall.

And you can not tell me that a lot of this stuff is explained elsewhere, like in other novels or comics or roleplaying game background materials or, frankly, anyplace else. The movie is the story I come to see, and the explanatory material for what happens in the movie needs to be in the movie. I shouldn't have to do a research project to understand what's going on in a movie.

I’ll say this in closing for this section: it’s a good thing that JJ Abrams is a very good kinetic director, because even with all its enormous problems in the story arena, it’s still a very entertaining movie to watch.

In the next segment, we’ll discuss issues pertaining to the characters. (The film makes out better on this score, but again, not without some major reservations.)

Part Three: Poe, Rey, Me

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Farewell to Football

It's been fun, football, but I can't do it anymore.

I've been sensing this moment coming, with every single death of a former player. My enthusiasm started to wane with the suicide of Junior Seau...or maybe it was Mike Webster's passing...or Dave Duerson...or...well, it doesn't matter. For years we've known that life expectancy for former NFL players wasn't great, and that former players often had to live with significant health and body issues for the rest of their lives after retirement. For years I said what everybody else says: "They knew the risks. They signed the contracts. They made the money."

I can't say those things anymore. Not after reading what Darryl Talley's wife had to say.

"Our daughters and I spent a few years frustrated and concerned with Darryl’s anger, erratic behavior, insufferable mood swings, impulsivity, depression and memory loss," Talley wrote. "He’d been more and more frequently asking how to spell elementary words. He lost keys, wallets, reading glasses, and television remotes regularly. Where he once would have retraced his steps and been able to find a misplaced item, he wasn’t able to do so anymore. He had no ability to concentrate or make decisions."

Janine Talley says her husband sometimes struggles just to walk to the bathroom in the morning. He'll occasionally be eating and just drop his fork or glass on the floor because he has no feeling in his fingers. Excruciating pain often makes it difficult for him to sleep or sit in a chair.

Once, Talley came out of the house for a trip to the store, and Janine noticed his hand was missing a chunk of flesh and bleeding profusely. He hadn't noticed.

"When we got to the store and he pulled out his wallet, with it came his razor," Janine Talley wrote. "When he finished shaving, instead of putting the razor back in the cabinet, he’d unknowingly put it in his pocket. The mystery of how he’d cut himself was solved. His not knowing he’d put the razor in his pocket and not having enough feeling in his fingers to realize he’d sliced chunks of his flesh off of them repulsed and infuriated me."
I can't read stories like this and conclude that it was all worth it. I can't read accounts like this of a post-football life amounting to decades of pain and emotional turmoil and tortured family life. I can't see those things, and many more like them, as a worthwhile price to pay for a game.

Sport is the act of demanding things from our bodies that they're not really built to provide. I get that, and I'm sure every sport leaves its mark. But football is something else. Football is a meatgrinder of an industry that asks children to put their brains at risk in hopes of getting on the high school team, then asks the high schoolers to do the same in hopes of getting to play in college, and then asks the college players to do the same in hopes of getting to the NFL. With each level, the percentages shrink dramatically, and with arrival in the NFL comes...nothing more than that. You play your time, you get used up, and you leave.

I can't support this any longer. I can't cheer these young men on the field, knowing that in twenty or thirty years a good many of them will be suffering horrible physical ailments and may be struggling for money. (Talley's family has had fundraisers to pay for his surgeries. Fundraisers. For a former NFL player who made "millions", which weren't enough. And that's not Talley's fault.)

I can't support this sport any longer, with my feeling that it's a matter of time before a player dies on the field.

I can't buy the excuses anymore. Don't tell me they know the risks; don't tell me they sign the contracts; don't tell me they get paid a lot of money. Just don't. Nobody who reaches the age of, say, 40 looks back on their 22-year-old self and sees a paragon of risk-assessment. Likewise, don't tell me that money makes it all better. In a lot of cases, the money doesn't last, and in more cases, even if it's handled intelligently, the money runs out eventually. Those few millions dwindle quickly once the career is over and the medical bills start to mount.

I'm sure that a lot of former players, even the ones who are suffering the most, will say that it was worth it to them. That the high they got from taking the field is more than worth the years and decades of agony that come later. And maybe, for them, it is. That does not justify the industrial ruining of lives for the sake of The Game.

Watching football has brought me less and less cheer over the last few years, and now, it seems to bring no cheer at all. I look at football highlights and all I see are men being paid to hit each other as hard as they can.

So it's been fun, football, but I'm done. I no longer root for the Bills or hate the Patriots. I find the whole game a depressing thing for everyone concerned. Including the children who will see their fathers dwindle long before their time.

The difference between our bread-and-circuses and those of the Romans is that our gladiators aren't dying on the fields or in the Colosseums. They're doing it at home, alone, and sometimes they're doing it with a pulling of the trigger as their final act.

Is that worth a Lombardi Trophy, in any city?

For Not anymore.

Thoughts on THE FORCE AWAKENS, episode I: The Phantom Lucas

So. The Force Awakens.

I liked it. A lot. I loved a lot of the things in it.

But I don’t think I loved it, overall.

It’s a weird thing, seeing Star Wars just keep on truckin’. I had mostly made my peace with the notion that when Revenge of the Sith ended, the story in which I’d been so invested ever since I was six years old was finally done. I mean, sure, there were novels galore and animated teevee stuff and the like, but the core tale was complete. But then, a few years ago George Lucas decides to sell the whole kit-and-kaboodle to Disney, and they immediately greenlight an entirely new trilogy. Even as I’ve read reports on production, and watched the various trailers, I have to admit to having felt a certain level of disconnect. It just doesn’t feel to me like the story is continuing. The Force Awakens is billed as Star Wars Episode VII, but to me it has the distinct air of being Star Wars: The Next Generation, Episode I.

And that’s fine. It really is. Maybe Star Wars: The Next Generation can eventually win me over, just as its Star Trek forbears did. We’ll see. After seeing The Force Awakens three times I must admit that my reaction is not quite as glowingly positive as it is for many other observers.

Maybe that’s partly because I actually like the Prequel Trilogy, and thus I have no particular emotional need for this movie and its follow-ups to atone for sins that I don’t think Episodes I, II, and III ever committed in the first place. I’m not looking at The Force Awakens through Prequel-colored glasses. I didn’t really need anything from The Force Awakens at all, other than to tell an interesting and original story and do it well.

That’s where my problem with the film lies. Its story isn't interesting enough. It's a clearly recycled story, and while it did do a lot of things well, it didn’t tell that story as well as the first time I encountered it. It further hurts that the story The Force Awakens retells is the story from the very first ever Star Wars movie, A New Hope, with tropes from the other two Original Trilogy films thrown in (with what felt to me a stiff dose of Joss Whedon and Firefly for good measure).

I don’t want to beat the movie up too badly on this point, because it’s certainly true that pastiche of earlier genre films (as well as novels and comics) was a big part of the genesis of Star Wars in the first place. But the things that went into the first pastiche in the 1970s weren’t nearly as big a cultural icon as Star Wars is now, and when a story gets as self-referential as this one does, it can get problematic. I did find the storytelling in The Force Awakens problematic at points, especially the first time I saw the film, and I started a post about my concerns...

...but then an interesting thing happened. I started hearing from a non-trivial number of people that the movie actually improves upon a second viewing, as certain plot points are clarified a bit and as certain scenes take on additional emotional resonance when you know they’re coming. The latter point there is not without precendent: Roger Ebert himself used to argue that Casablanca is actually more effective the second time out, when you see the film’s first act knowing the source of Rick Blaine’s cynicism, and I’ve found that more than a few novels are better on a second read (including my beloved The Lions of Al-Rassan). I’ve heard people often say of certain beloved stories that they wish they could see or read it again for the first time, but I’d rather have the first two or three experiences back. The more you look, the more you see, and I am happy to report that this is most definitely true for The Force Awakens. I liked it substantially more when I saw it the second time. The third viewing? That one left me loving the things I already liked, and a little grumpier about the things I didn’t, because the things I didn’t are mostly small things, matters of exposition, that could have mostly been dealt with by adding a few lines of dialogue here and there.

So, let’s get to it.

It seems like everybody is about “ranking” these movies, but I don’t much go for that; any ranking of the Star Wars movies I have goes like this: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, all the rest, in no particular order, and I love the rest. There are no Star Wars movies that I dislike, and I am long on record as not hating the Prequels. When I say that I think The Force Awakens is about as good as The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, I actually don’t mean that as any kind of insult.

Where to begin, then? With George Lucas, of course.

As the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney was being publicized, it came out that Lucas had actually started working on developing his ideas for Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. I guess once a Star Warrior, always a Star Warrior...but then Disney decided that it wanted to go its own route, and basically told Lucas: “Thanks for your service, we’ll keep your ideas on file, but we’re going in our own direction.” Which meant that any established “Expanded Universe” continuity was out the window, and any remaining ideas that Lucas had were jettisoned, as well.

Now, I’d frankly be quite interested to hear what Lucas had in mind. I assume he was going to continue with the adventures of the Skywalker family, because as he noted in an interview with Charlie Rose, he had always seen Star Wars as a family saga, first and foremost, with generational concerns and heredity and drama between fathers and sons and so on. I saw some people poo-poo that notion, but Lucas is speaking truth here, as anyone who actually knows anything about Star Wars (and, particularly, its development in its earliest stages, back in the 1970s) can attest. Lucas’s earliest drafts contain a lot of that kind of thing, and it’s worth remembering that at various early stages, Star Wars was subtitled, “From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker.”

I’ve no idea where Lucas was thinking about going with the Skywalker family (or even if he was), but I assume that he was doing so, keeping the main saga about this one family. With The Force Awakens, there is some of that, but the feeling is somewhat muted, as we only know the parentage of one of the new characters: villain Kylo Ren, who is a Skywalker on his mother’s side (Leia), but is also a Solo. Now, the film hints very strongly that newcomer Rey is a Skywalker as well, but nothing is confirmed, which I found a bit irritating. JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan seem to be under the impression that there have to be familial secrets to only be revealed at key points, and they seem to think that leaving Rey’s parentage unresolved is some kind of incentive to keep coming back. We’ll get back to that point later, though.

As I note, Disney’s current approach to Star Wars seems to be, quite simply, to put out a movie with the Star Wars name on it every year until they start flopping. That will happen, eventually, but who knows how long it will take. And no, I’m not rooting for that to happen, but it does signify a change in Star Wars, to an ongoing, open-ended thing, instead of what it once was: a core story surrounded by a lot of other “satellite” tales. We know there’s a current trilogy of “Saga” movies on the way – the seventh, eighth, and ninth episodes – and three “anthology” films, each of which tells a separate and self-contained tale within the Star Wars mythos. Thing I wonder is, if the films are still making money once those have all been released – and barring a significant drop-off in quality, there’s no reason to think that’s likely to happen any time soon – will Disney just move us right into Episode X? And what then? Another thirty years down the road for the characters?

I don’t know. But I honestly am bothered by the shift to Star Wars as an open, unending thing. But then...what’s another term for a serialized tale that doesn’t really end at any point, that just keeps moving the conflicts down through newer generations?

Soap opera.

I read some people poo-poo-ing George Lucas’s notion that Star Wars was originally conceived as a soap opera, but there’s a good chance that’s where Disney’s ultimately going with it. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it is something that is at odds with how I’ve always viewed Star Wars. I don’t think that Lucas ever intended the entire story to be open-ended to this degree. We’ll see.

Before I end Part One of this review, there’s something else George Lucas said in that Charlie Rose interview that I think bears addressing. It’s the now-infamous “white slavers” line, in which he says that he partly felt, when he sold the franchise to Disney, that he was selling his “kids” to “white slavers”. He laughed and immediately moved on to something else, clearly having realized that he’d made a bad metaphor there, but the moment did bite him in the arse when the interview was made public, and he had to issue an apology for it. Some other folks on the “We’ve hated Lucas for years” bandwagon seized the bait, obviously, in a predictably ugly bit of “Oh, shut up George, you got your four billion” and the ongoing insistence by every Lucas-basher in the world that he still needs to atone for not only the sins of the movies he wrote and directed that they didn’t like, but also the movies like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which he merely produced.

When I first heard that “white slavers” quote – and really, that was a staggeringly tone-deaf metaphor for Lucas to use – I figured he was taken aback by Disney’s pedal-to-the-metal, “Star Wars movie-a-year for the foreseeable future” approach. Having seen the interview and heard that quip in context, I think it’s much more innocuous than that, word choice aside. I think he’s just voicing the same feeling that anyone who has ever willingly parted with something they loved, something that was a part of them. I think of Forrest J. Ackerman’s legendary science fiction memorabilia collection here, which he had to start selling off late in his life to finance medical treatments and such. I imagine that whenever you spend your life doing a thing, and then you sell the fruits of it and the ownership of it to someone else, even if you trust them completely, there’s still going to be a feeling of betrayal, that you’ve let down the collection or the movie franchise or whatever it is. I think that’s a very human and normal thing for George Lucas to think, and it’s too bad he said it such a terrible way.

That’s where I’ll leave off here. The review continues in Episode II....

Part Two: Stop Me If You've Seen This Movie Before