Film Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In honor of the one-year anniversary of first seeing it on the giant screen, here’s my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Seeing it multiple times on Blu-Ray did not change the opinions I had when I first saw it—only once—in theaters. I agree in general with people who say it has too much in common with the first movie, though I won’t go as far as to say it’s a reboot.
But there’s one very big difference: Rey. As much as she’s been likened to a young Luke Skywalker, her story is much more compelling. Had the robots not dropped into his lap—and that was quite an amazing coincidence, considering who his sister turned out to be—he would have led a drab but okay lifestyle on Tatooine, though more likely he would have gone off to be a pilot somewhere. More importantly, he was raised in a family by his aunt and uncle. Compare that to Rey, and it’s amazing she survived all those years alone.

In screenplays there’s plot and there’s dialogue. With such a big budget record breaker in the works, the important thing is not to screw it up. There’s some validity to the plot being similar to the first one, but in the moment it’s not nearly as noticeable. (And then I think that Poe’s in the Leia role at the beginning and all such thought goes away.) Oddly enough when it comes to the dialogue, it’s the opposite of what I am going to say about directing below: here the moments are more important. Who can forget Maz screaming, “Where’s my boyfriend?” or Rey’s eyes bugging out when she sees all the meal packages places in front of her?

It’s been said that JJ Abrams goes for “moments” in his directing style, and oddly enough there’s evidence both pro and against here. It’s true enough, as the pace is choppy and uneven. But then there’s a reason Lucas didn’t get nominated for Star Wars, and today no one cares. Let’s just say he didn’t screw it up.

For years Harrison Ford was thought of as simply an action guy who didn’t need to worry about finding depth in his performances. Then he did Regarding Henry and all that changed. In his fourth Star Wars movie he gets to do more than in the previous three combined, though that’s mostly because he has a wife, son, and surrogate daughter to play off of rather than just a Wookie. (Sorry, Chewie, didn’t mean it like that.)
Daisy Ridley has some nice subtle touches that are simply adorable; the way she alternately smiles at praise and then looks dismayed when Han blows her off shows that Rey should never play poker.
John Bodega didn’t get anything all that juicy to do here, though I expect that’ll change in the next one. As for Adam Driver, when you’re asked to go crazy with a lightsaber how can you not go all out? That must’ve been fun, smashing all that equipment.
(RIP Carrie Fisher)

When you’re driving across the desert the landscape is boring, but on film it’s always gorgeous. And of course you need a verdant oasis to counter it. Loved Rey’s reaction to seeing the green rain forest, though I would have thought she would be more impressed by all that water.
And even if this goes in the special effects category, the insides of the destroyer, as well as Starkiller Base, during the dogfights have a stark beauty to them as well.

It’s John freakin’ Williams. Next question.

Here’s where the big difference is for me from the first movie. Maybe it’s because I saw Star Wars as a kid; in fact, it’s the first movie I remember seeing. I don’t like to think of myself as old and jaded—well, jaded, anyway—but I simply didn’t get that same feeling of adventure and wonder from this one.

Book Reviews: Graphic Surprises

There’s actually a word for how good it feels when I tumble into bed every night! Bedgasm!

Love, Volume 4: The Dinosaur
This is the third of this series I’ve read; the first was excellent, the second not as much. As usual you get a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with the plot, just beautiful artwork, which is fine when it’s not close-ups of insects—ugh. Unlike the previous, though, these are done in something close to sepia, so definitely not as eye popping as the sheer gorgeousness of the past issues.
There’s all kinds of dinosaurs included here, including some I’ve never seen. The narrative doesn’t seem all that focused, as it took a long time to figure out which dino was the one in the title. Was it the little guy, or the T-Rex? Still not sure. There’s some surprisingly good action scenes for 2-D, like Rex against a Three Horn, right out of the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles. Another good one is the pterodactyl coming in for a crash landing; you could almost hear him screaming, “Didn’t hurt!” But the best artwork has to be at the cataclysmic ending.
Unfortunately I found it hard to overcome the color scheme, which made most of the art somewhat boring. And it’s slow going if you’re really trying to pay attention. The previous entry was disappointing compared to the ones before, but this one even more so.
There’s 22 pages of extras, basically showing off drawings that didn’t get into the story and some early storyboards. There’s a funny drawing of a T Rex trying to read a tiny book with its tiny hands, even wearing glasses.

Puppet Master V.5: Vacancy
An inn on the northern California coast is reopened, still inhabited by killer puppets. A human boy now has them under control, or so he thinks.
This is the first of the series I’ve read, and unfortunately there’s no backstory included. Even the prologue doesn’t help. It isn’t till the main story starts that the main character explains about the inn, but it’s basically one long info drop with very little style.
These puppets kill in the most gruesome ways. . .
The ending makes it sound like more of the same, according to the puppets.
No extras, and there’s nothing in the artwork that’s particularly noteworthy.

Rick and Morty: Lil’ Poopy Superstar, V.1
An animated TV show comes to print with a main character named Mr. Poopybutthole seeking the help of a redhead named Summer Smith (because everything’s better with alliteration).
Even though I’ve never seen this, it doesn’t require a lot of background. Mr. Poopybutthole is well aware of what he is—at one point he shouts, “I’m a changed butthole!”—and speaks with a Suthin’ accent. He likes to say “Ooo-wee!” On the other hand, he has an inflated sense of self, with lines like, “I had to put all this charisma and flair to good use.” I already felt sorry for Summer at the start, but it only gets worse and worse for her, because we all know redheads are never allowed to win.
*Team High Five!* Space ice cream!
This would no doubt have been better with previous familiarity with the TV series, especially toward the end when family jealousies erupt. It’s all pretty silly, but that kinda works to its advantage. It was okay, but nothing I’d go out of my way for.
A few pages of creator bios at the end.

The Adventures of Basil and Moebius V.4: The Fate of All Fools
Having enjoyed a previous edition of the adventures of these characters, like something to the left of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, I was looking forward to this.
Don’t know what’s worse: traveling back in time and arriving at an Inca sacrifice, or landing in another dimension that looks too barren for anyone to live. They get to find out.
Of course Basil’s still the ladies’ man, mostly because he pays well. Moebius is a lot more arrogant than I remember. Even worse is when Basil becomes Captain Obvious; truly ridiculous for him to be spouting the exact thing we see. “Have to. . . pull free. . .” No kidding. It got to the point where I was far too happy to have another panel of the delicious blue-eyed Israeli spy to gawk at, though despite the beautiful face and tight suit she didn’t appear nearly often enough.
As before, the humor is what sells this, even when Moebius is being extra haughty. “That’s why I always stress the importance of keeping your wits about you. And a pet golum.” He even comes up with the perfect reasoning as to why they don’t fall when they’re hanging upside down.
As expected, it ends on a cliffhanger. The artwork is exactly how you would expect it, a dark superhero style. But I definitely liked the previous ones better.


Poetry Tuesday: Tears

Anonymous 17th century England; finally one not by Shakespeare.

Weep you no more, sad fountains;
What need you flow so fast?
Look how the snowy mountains
Heaven’s sun doth gently waste.
But my sun’s heavenly eyes
View not your weeping,
That now lies sleeping
Softly, now softly lies

Sleep is a reconciling,
A rest that peace begets.
Doth not the sun rise smiling
When fair at even he sets?
Rest you then, rest, sad eyes,
Melt not in weeping,
While she lies sleeping
Softly, now softly lies


Book Reviews: Customer Service, Absurdity, Westerns, and Lizards

Tried to remember “Shadowing of Angels” and “Fascist Lizards,” but of course when it mattered it came out “Shadowing of Lizards” and “Fascist Angels.”
Hmmm, I wonder if that last one is a sequel to Paradise Lost. . .

The Best Customer Service Quotes Ever Said
If you thought these would be quotes from people about customer service they’ve received, you’d be wrong. This is about how to give customer service, so the title is a little misleading. And most quote books don’t have such a narrow focus.
A lot of these quotes are by the author himself, but because I’ve read his previous book, which I considered one of the top of last year, it’s worth it. Every once in a while some gem will pop up, sometimes by the last person you’d expect.

Extraordinary Shorts
Very short stories that feel like the author is a Twilight Zone fan but wanted to write five minute episodes rather than half hours. The first one reminds me of the tale of the coat left on the girl’s grave I first heard as a kid, and most followed in that vein. Toward the end there were some stories that forgot to include a punch line. The author sure loves setting her scenes, almost overdoing the descriptions, but maybe because these are for kids there’s no great effort to make the plots anything but bare bones. I expected more.
The scariest part wasn’t the stories, but the pencil artwork, especially the faces.

The United States of Absurdity
From drunk baseball games to Agent Elvis to lobster madmen, here are moments in history that were probably better off left without this light shined on them. Michael Malloy, for example, is a darkly comic version of Rasputin.
But it’s important to remember this isn’t intended as a history book, rather to make the reader laugh. The snark is in full effect; it’s the best part of this. It’s not like these history lessons are important. . .
At times juvenile, but mostly innocent—and not so innocent—fun.

High Noon
Subtitled: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. That’s an important distinction, lest you make the mistake of assuming this is just a behind-the-scenes of the making of the popular Western film.
It starts with a fantastic bio of Gary Cooper, but then shifts to a long history of American communism during WW2. The Cooper stuff is the best part of the first half; the Red scare hearings drag things down, slow the pace, though once in a while there’s a gem, like the news that Ayn Rand had a big part in this that no one knew about.
There’s an interesting take by one of the lawyers representing someone “asked” to testify: “He would not represent anyone who took the Fifth Amendment, arguing that if they were former Communists, as all of his clients claimed to be, they had not broken any law and therefore did not need the amendment’s protection.” The best job description ever written has to be “the industry expert in frying producers.”
This is a difficult read, both emotionally and. . . reading wise. Thankfully there’s some optimistic moments, such as the part at the end that tells about the movie’s—or at least the poster’s—role in helping Solidarity overcome the Communist government in Poland. Another fun fact is that this movie has the distinction of being the most requested by American presidents. But the most heartwarming has to be the story of detective work that unearthed the original manuscript of the screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai, leading the author of High Noon to receive credit for the Oscar-winning work just in the nick of time.
Acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography take up the last 12%.
As can be perceived by my previous comments, the parts about the movie were so much more interesting than the hearings. 4.5 for the movie stuff, 2.5 for hearings, so according to old math that comes out to:

Fascist Lizards from Outer Space
Most likely the best title of any book this year, and not what you think of at first blush. Instead this is about the making of the incredibly popular science-fiction franchise known simply as V, from the original blockbuster to the lackluster reboot.
The first important note is in the intro, where the author states this project evolved from a master’s thesis to a full-fledged book. For the most part that’s hard to tell, but on the other hand it does explain a few niggling problems. For example, it’s stated right away that the original miniseries, of which I remember fondly and was a huge fan, drew more than 40% of the viewing audience, which even in the days before cable is an astounding number. But as awesome as that factoid is, it doesn’t bear repeating four times in the opening quarter of the book, and more times after that. Made me wonder if this was mashed together from several different writings, and not edited.
Another point that’s repeated time and again is the mention of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, a book that is incredibly relevant to the story as well as today’s America—more on that in a bit—but annoyed me by the fourth mention.
What I learned most about the making of V was the history of its auteur, Kenneth Johnson. Not being a Hollywood insider, I was unfamiliar with his name on anything other than this, so it was with fascination that I read about his work with three other intriguing series: The Bionic Woman, the Incredible Hulk, and Alien Nation. Much is made of his background in classics and literature, like how he equated the Hulk with Jean Valjean from Les Misérables, a “lonely fugitive relentlessly hounded by an obsessed adversary.”
There’s plenty of fun little notes, such as the fact that the original miniseries’ four-note motif represents the letter V in Morse code. And I’m loving some of the alternative stories that never got done. But at the end there’s no more fun, quite the opposite. Maybe this is why this book was written now; there’s a whole section on it, probably originally written as a stand-alone, but this is the basic sum-up: “The violence and discord occurring at Trump’s rallies harkens back to the brutalities committed by Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (also known as “Brownshirts”) during his ascendency to the German chancellery.” And since this is where Johnson got the original idea for the whole story. . .
The last 7% is appendix, book list, episode credits, merchandise, bibliography, and index.


Could Be Worse, Could Be Better

So last night the microwave conked out.
This morning, really early, a tube behind the toilet burst, so that you don’t have to get into the tub to take a shower.
And for the last few days I’ve had a thumbnail going the wrong way, only to wake with a bump of red and white above the nail.
Gonna be one of those days, huh?
Luckily the apartment handyman turned up early, though it did take a while for the bathroom floor to dry enough for him to replace the tube. Then it turned out the microwave wasn’t to blame, it was the electrical outlet. That got fixed quickly too.
So feeling good about that, I walked for 45 minutes to CVS, only to find a long line at the Minute Clinic, and over two hours of waiting because of the doctor’s lunch break. Should have followed my instincts and taken the bus to Pasadena Community, but eventually did get out there—the JPL bus takes a long detour through the charming old-fashioned downtown of Sierra Madre, then another long walk—and in less than 15 minutes after arriving I’m in a room waiting for a doctor. I won’t tell you about how she sliced my thumb open to remove the bad fluids—mostly because I didn’t watch—but it hurt a lot less than I expected, and then I caught a bus right in front of the clinic that left me two blocks from home. And wow did this clinic look clean and modern, even having free coffee and a futuristic vending machine that had red vines!
So now I’m at the desk hoping the roof doesn’t leak, but feeling a lot better than I did that morning, when I was drenched from having to reach into the spray to shut off the valve. Sure, it’s basically first world problems, but when they come in bunches. . .


Book Reviews: Labyrinth, Christmas, and Murder

Takeaway from a visit to the Huntington Library: Jack London had worse handwriting than me.

The second review is dedicated to Jennifer Connelly on her birthday.

Dead Nasty
Another entry in the Callidine mystery series, this time featuring a killer who’s released from prison—after fooling a Reverend, like that’s difficult—and is instantly accused of doing it again.
At the start there’s a scene that shows Callidine has changed, but it doesn’t take long for the hothead to emerge as usual. Whenever the cops find forensic evidence that ties right to a suspect Callidine is jubilant, but even I could tell it was a setup. He’s always been a jerk, but he was a good cop too. Lost respect for him here. But the worst part was that, in giving so many red herrings, the author seems to have forgotten she’d pretty much given it away at the beginning, as there was only one suspect with the motives the killer told his victim before killing her. And the killer’s excuse for confessing at the end, after so many denials throughout the book, doesn’t sound real at all.
I found this the weakest entry in the series even before the shock ending. Killing off a great character for no reason. . . I don’t care if it’s continued in the next book; it’s not right. I have absolutely no wish to read the next.

Labyrinth: One classic film, fifty-five sonnets
Shelley wrote one famous sonnet—Ozymondius—about one subject, a narrow focus that allowed him to perfect it. Shakespeare—or whoever really wrote him—was a freak. With fifty-five examples here, it’s such a giant task it would seem impossible. Obviously they won’t all have the same quality. Some rhymes are too forced, or not rhyming at all. Others use unnecessary words in order to make the rhyme. Often the ending couplet is the best part, but it definitely helps to read them out loud.
The best are the ones with such imagery that they instantly remind you of the scene in the movie, even with something as simple as “along which Sarah lightly skipped across.” One of my faves was, “The cleaners clattered past, and so revealed goblins, pedalling frantically on wheels.”
This is one of the best:
“Hoggle told the girl that there he’d leave her –
Their deal was done, or so he clearly felt.
Angry, Sarah called him a deceiver,
And snatched his pouch of jewels from his belt.”
But then there’s others like:
“They dropped her in a cell, an oubliette
(That’s from the French – oublier, to forget).”
A little too cutesy, but it works.
For fans of the movie it’s definitely worth it, and the mind boggles—Hoggles?—at such effort, but it’s not what I’d call great.

Running on Empty
A refugee from reality shows settles in a mountain party town, only to have another show draw her back in. She’s a sweet girl who doesn’t want to be thought of as a bimbo, but she is mostly too naïve for her own good. And of course there’s a guy she wants but is too scared to tell, and the same with him.
This is the third in a series, and while there’s plenty of info about previous stories, I wish I’d read the others before. Even more so, the first Meg Benjamin book I read was so fantastic it’s a struggle not to compare. This one is funny, but not as funny as that first one. For another, I like this girl but she’s no Docia.
So yep, not as good, but Meg always brings it.

White Christmas
A woman gets hit by a car and ends up at Santa’s Workshop. Santa’s security chief is ex FBI. Sure, why not?
“So why is your workshop under attack?”
Nick sighed. “It’s part of an age-old struggle. The forces of evil have always been aligned against Christmas.” Santa also says, “There are many places of atonement. This is one of them.” So if Santa’s workshop is a purgatory or Hell, I wonder what the other ones are.
But never forget it’s a romance. Silly but enjoyable little piece of fluff.


Clarification on Simplicity

When I say I have simple tastes in women, I’m not talking about simple women, brainwise. I mean two things. First and easily enough to understand, it’s lack of drama, but just as important is a woman who’s happy with being her natural self: no painted hair, no heavy makeup, no high heels. . . nothing that makes her seem like something she’s not.
Put it this way: at a modeling industry dinner, I’m the guy flirting with the waitress. . .