Travel Thursday Snapshots: Tunisia after Djerba

(The Story of Djerba is in a previous blog.)
The ferry back to the mainland took only twenty minutes and wasn’t at all crowded, like most ferries on this sea. A call yesterday had nabbed me a car and driver, who grinned for some reason when told our destination would be Matmata. Commonly known as a Berber troglodyte settlement—which makes it sound worse than it was, considering how elegantly decorated some of the caves were—it had been a port founded by the Phoenicians, full of temples, the forum, baths, and a market, the kind of historical site where I could spend hours photographing and playing archaeologist.
Which I did, of course, but that wasn’t the actual reason for being here. Lunch wasn’t usually a highlight in my itineraries, except when it took place in a famous movie locale, in this case the interior of the Skywalker home in the first Star Wars movie. {The propaganda said it was the home of Luke Skywalker’s parents, which I promptly called them on; the English-speaking tour guide rolled his eyes and said new brochures were on the way, from a different printing company, that said “Luke’s aunt and uncle” in large print. Don’t know if that was truth.}
Despite its formal name of Sidi Driss Hotel, it was known locally as the Star Wars hotel, for obvious reasons, considering all the visitors it received. Since I can never get used to spicy food, I brought along my own provisions, but pretended to eat up as the owner regaled me with stories about the filming of the first movie, particularly how everything had been returned to normal after shooting, because no one figured it would be such a gigantic smash, but lucking out in that the crews came back and restored it to shoot Attack of the Clones.
As soon as lunch was over I smiled to myself, ready to immerse my photographic soul into shooting every inch of this place. The exteriors of this set were pretty far away, and best left for last, but the Mos Eisley exteriors, especially the cantina, from the first movie were a lot closer, and somewhere in between was the castle from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. And though it took a lot of slogging and I never had a chance to verify it was the right spot, the top of the dune where Luke watches the binary sunset was a bucket list moment.

;o)

Travel Thursday Snapshots: Djerba, Tunisia

No one told me to put on sunblock before going to bed at night. . .
Sighing heavily, knees creaking as my feet hit the floor, I walked over to the large window behind the bed, the stars of last night replaced by the heavy sunlight that had awakened me. Below the almost-tropical blue sky was a beach, though it had plenty of big rocks, enough to make real surf noise that had probably helped in lulling me to sleep last night, not an easy thing to do when you suffer from both insomnia and apnea. . . plus in this particular instance jetlag.
The scene made it easy to picture Odysseus’ men lazing on the sand while subsisting on lotus flowers, probably that blue water lily I’d seen on my first walk. Often called the “Polynesia of the Mediterranean,” Djerba was an island of palm trees and sandy beaches, along with the inevitable luxury hotels. What made it different than the rest of the Med, as well as the Carib, the Pacific, and basically everywhere else, was that it belonged to a Muslim country, albeit one not all that strict. Off the coast of Tunisia, Djerba not only had pirate castles, ancient synagogues, buildings that were featured in the original Star Wars (those were the droids you were looking for!) and open-air markets full of potters and silversmiths, it also had a casino. . . not that I would be wasting my time gambling, though I did hear there was a game room, with air hockey, Galaxian, skeeball, etc. You know, in case I got bored with all the sun. . .
Which I did, but not before walking what felt like the entire island’s circumference; at least my knees were creaking for an honest reason now. Realizing I was still early for dinner, I took the scenic route back to the hotel; unlike most tourists, I savored the moments amongst the locals, both their festivities and everyday work. How else would I have met so many friendly people, watched some dancers rehearsing for some festival, come across a wedding procession with the bride riding a camel? All soundtracked to melodious flutes and pulse-pounding tambourines.
And then end the day sharing the absolute splendor of a Mediterranean sunset with fishermen still casting their nets at this late hour, though I figured the clock didn’t matter, since fish don’t sleep.
Refreshed and relaxed without having stopped the walking, I wandered back towards the hotel, my mental GPS unerring as usual as I walked through shady gardens of fig, apple, and pomegranate; I’d grown up with a granada tree in the front yard, so I recognized that last fruit easily without wanting to reach up and grab one. Skipping the olive groves, though taking in the gnarled trunks that proved just how old civilization was on this island, I found myself high enough to look out, in the last dregs of post-sunset glow, to what I’d heard called The Island of the Pink Flamingo, as always wondering if it would be worth the trip. . .

;o)

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.

Overview
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.

Writing
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?

Directing
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.

Acting
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)

Cinematography
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.

Music
It’s John freakin’ Williams. Next question.

“Feel”
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.
3.5/5
;o)

Book Reviews: Star Wars, Grumpy Cat, and Inhuman Love

“If the chef is adamant about being spicy, I can always eat tortilla chips. That’ll put him in his place.”
She wrinkled her nose at the thought of a chef being spicy.

Star Wars on Trial: The Force Awakens Edition
Two supposed experts—never heard of them—argue as to why Star Wars is so great and why it isn’t. There’s a droid judge. Other people I’ve never heard of testify—the original meaning, not the urban slang—to that effect with their own essays, and then get cross-examined.
I’m surprised by how much of this tediousness I enjoyed. Helps that there was plenty to laugh at, especially between the councilors. I managed to annoy myself by thinking one side had a great point and then instantly the rebuttal had me thinking, “That’s true too!” I loved that the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was mentioned, as all of George Lucas’s catalog was fair game.
But let’s be honest: this is an old book masquerading as a current edition, supposedly given a makeover due to the new movie. Not true. With renewed interest in the series they could have simply been honest about it.
3/5

Misadventures of Grumpy Cat Volume 1
Collection of eleven stories in graphic form about that annoyed feline of internet fame, drawn very lifelike, along with her little brother Pokey. At a certain point I thought: if she has a spiritual ancestor, it would be Eeyore, except that donkey just didn’t want to do anything, whereas Grumpy will go out of her way to make Pokey look like an idiot. In the first story Grumpy pretends to be a ghost just to scare Pokey and get revenge for not sharing treats; for someone who doesn’t care for anything, that’s a lot of effort. So something brings her pleasure, even if she’s still being a jerk about it.
There’s a sarcastic sense of humor that permeates the book, especially toward the end. Nickelback recording a Creed cover? Amityville and Full House mashup? At least one of these authors had a lot of personal grumpiness to get out.
There’s some extra covers at the end, but by then I’d reached my limit; there’s only so much grumpy a reader can take.
3/5

Mated with the Cyborg
In the future humanity comes across alien races, some of them nasty. A former Special Ops-type guy goes undercover as the titular cyborg to get info on said bad guys, or even try to kill off their leaders. So of course he finds himself falling for the “princess” of the story, who’s shunned because she’s not like the others; this was a nice take on Twilight Zone’s Eye of the Beholder.
This may be listed as romance or erotica, but I see it as a sci-fi thriller with some sex scenes. The way the alien culture is portrayed, with its militancy and especially its religion, espousing rewards in the afterlife, isn’t subtle at all, but I suppose that’s the point.
Overall I found myself liking it, despite the couple of times the human was so besotted he failed at operational procedure and almost got them killed. Kinda reminded me of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, had the show been on cable.
4/5

First Bite
A stripper in the South trying to win custody of her little brother gets dumped over the phone by her high and mighty boyfriend, then promptly meets a new guy that same night after popping out of a giant cake. He’s not what he seems.
This is another entry in the growing field of not-quite-human erotica, and since it’s told in alternating first person you get both their thoughts as they fall hard for each other. There’s a deliciously wicked sense of humor, especially from her; he’s frequently stuck in the usual alpha male role, but even though she’s into him instantly she retains her image and self-worth, which is unusual in these kinds of stories.
As this is the first of a new series, it ends in a cliffhanger, before he can tell her his secret or she can inform him about her little brother. Half a point off for that, but overall a nice read.
3.5/5

;o)

Book Reviews: Sci-Fi, Mystery, and Teen Girls

“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me!”
“That doesn’t speak well for your husband.”

Miasma
A Star Trek novella taking place somewhen after the third movie, it features the Enterprise ferrying diplomats to a meeting—old plot—and investigating a mysterious transmission, sending a shuttle with Spock in charge—old plot—to check things out. It’s even the same shuttle, Galileo; thankfully the similarity to the old Original series episode is noted in-universe.
Other than updating how Spock has progressed as a leader from the first time the Galileo crashed—it does that a lot—there’s really not much here. Redshirts die, Spock tries to keep the rest of them and McCoy alive. That part is very similar to the original episode as well; it also reminds me of one of the better books of the possibly thousands of Star Trek expanded universe novels, Uhura’s Song. The most intriguing notion here is having Spock and Saavik be telepathically linked because of their rumored Pon Farr on the Genesis planet, but that’s really the only new thing I saw. Even the diplomats whining that they’re going to be late is recycled.
I want to say that the similarities to previous plots are part of the 50th Anniversary thing, but the author mentions he came up with this story when he was pitching Voyager. I’m sure I would have liked it a whole lot better if I didn’t have this overwhelming feeling of having seen it all before.
3/5

This Long Vigil
A lone watchman on a generation ship is coming to the end of his run. He’ll go back into stasis and someone else will be awake for a while, but he’ll never be “alive” again. And there’s the problem: having experienced real life, how can he go back to “sleep” knowing he’s never going to feel it again?
Dan the AI bore some similarities to HAL 9000—yes, I just saw 2001 yet again—so I was a little worried toward the end, but thankfully it didn’t go in that direction. Most people on this ship are born, live in stasis, and die all without a moment of consciousness, which simply sounds horrible, but they don’t know any better. . . or anything at all, really. Having to pick his successor no doubt made things worse, though considering how lonely it must be—the ship even makes the babies!—it’s surprising he doesn’t go crazy, and actually makes his final choice all the more inevitable.
I’m thankful the author chose to keep this short; others might have bloated it, but this was all he needed to tell the story.
4/5

Dark Web
Snow plow driver up in the frozen reaches of New York state finds a dead kid on the road. From there we flashback to the family moving from Florida to that snowy locale before launching into the police investigation.
The cop investigating the murder is a mess; seems like no mystery these days is complete without a damaged sleuth. Also like most investigators in literature today, he spends most of his time chasing the wrong guy. Even when he’s right it’s by accident, because he was thinking something else when he latched onto the suspect. The best part for me was, after getting used to instant results on television—especially from Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds—how the book shows the reality of computer forensics, where it may take as long as toxicology to find out anything useful.
I felt like this is more convoluted than it needed to be. There’s a subplot for the snow plow driver and the cop—possibly from a different book—that didn’t really figure in the story. Couldn’t help but think I should have enjoyed this more.
3/5

The Teen Girl’s Survival Guide
Not sure a guy my age has any business reviewing a book aimed toward teenaged girls, but I felt that there might be stuff in here that could apply to older women who’d missed this boat, as well as men. I was right.
The first part is all about knowing yourself, and once you do, leaving your comfort zone. After that it becomes about communication, which is really the gist of this book. Basically college-aged girls tell their life experiences to make it easier for the younger ones reading this. After each there’s a section on what can be learned from those stories, which comes off a little preachy and too much like a textbook as it basically summarizes what’s been said.
Best quote: “If you give them a chance, lots of kids will give you help if you ask for it. And when you reach out for help, it gives them a chance to be the “expert,” and who doesn’t like that?” And the best advice: Being a good friend is the key to social success. It’s tough not to say that these things are rather obvious, because a lot of people, especially teenaged girls, aren’t that introspective. But at the very least it has some sections that help cut through the drama, showing that not everything is as bad as a fragile mind might make it out to be.
3.5/5

Bonus
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
(Movie, not novelization—that’s still to come)
JJ Abrams is clearly better suited for Star Wars than Star Trek. Took me about three minutes to fall in love with Rey. Special kudos to the FX people; I had no idea that Maz was completely CGI.
3.5/5

;o)

Book Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe

Great title, huh? It leaves the author, Chris Taylor, with a helluva lot to live up to, but I was more than willing to give him a chance. As usual, most of my review will be through quotes, but I can tell you there’s lots of playful trivia, not just about the movies themselves, but plenty on the making of. There’s a whole chapter on its opening, and how no one expected it to do anything money-wise, all stuff I didn’t know. Even the insights on George Lucas’s early career were fascinating, with the funniest part being the merchandising chapter.

Not only are there interviews with Lucas and others who worked on the movies, especially the special effects people, there’s also talks and info on some of the fans,like the guy who came up with the stormtrooper brigade that’s seen just about everywhere.

The book starts with a quest to find someone–anyone–who hasn’t seen any of the movies, or doesn’t know any of the references. The author finds himself on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, where the movie has been translated into that language. He thinks he found his target with a Code Talker (and if you don’t know what that means, go Wiki it–the review will wait, you really need to find out).

   James’ wartime story was enough to make my jaw hit the floor when I met him. But there was something else about him that was almost as incredible. George James was the first person I’d met, in a year of searching, who seemed to genuinely not know the first thing about the movie we were going to watch: something called Star Wars.

   “When I first heard the title I thought, ’The stars are at war?’” James shrugged. “I don’t go to the movies.”

Sadly. . .

Here’s an example of what the author means when he states that Star Wars had become general knowledge the way no other entertainment in any form has.

   I began to notice how Star Wars-saturated modern life is; references crop up in the oddest places. If you’re into yoga, you know that the technique of ujjayi breathing is commonly described by teachers as “breathing like Darth Vader.”

There’s also a story about a Facebook executive explaining how Yoda would see different Facebook posts from Luke as opposed to what Darth and Leia would see on theirs, and nobody thought this was strange. Love it. And by the way, the founder of Facebook had a Star Wars-themed bar mitzvah; now THAT’S a geek!

Trivia break: the roar of TIE fighters is actually a slowed-down elephant call.

In an interview Lucas said, “I was afraid science fiction buffs and everyone would say things like ‘you know there’s no sound in space.’ I just wanted to forget science. That would take care of itself.”

In space, everyone can hear you go pew pew.

Yes, I like this writer. . . we would be friends. . .

In talking with one of the first to make a Stormtrooper outfit, there’s a story about the first attempt, saying he had no line of sight in that helmet, which leads the author to snark, No wonder Stormtroopers were such poor marksmen.

Yeah, sounds like something I would say, which makes me a little sad. . .

More info I’m glad to know

There’s an annual worldwide contest for the best lightsaber video on YouTube called Sabercomp. (the results are spectacular and well worth looking up.) In Germany I met the Saber Project, a large and earnest group of fluorescent lightsaber makers that performed a mass battle demonstration before a thirtieth anniversary screening of Return of the Jedi.

Something else I didn’t know about, though I’m surprised by this one.

It’s hard to estimate how many people have seen the video, universally known as “Star Wars Kid.” Visit it on YouTube today, and you’ll see it has racked up almost 29 million views, adding a million views every six months or so. It went viral two years before there was a YouTube.

(update: I looked it up and it turns out I had seen it before; not sure if I should be happy about that. And according to the Wiki, it‘s estimated it’s been viewed nearly a BILLION times.)

“To not make a decision is to make a decision.”

Sounds like Yoda, huh? It’s Lucas, though it also sounds like a lyric from Rush’s Freewill.

My two favorite science-fiction writers are both mentioned in this book: Alan Dean Foster–because he ghost wrote the book version of the first movie as well as the first expanded universe offering–and Harry Harrison, who passed away recently. Here’s a quote I love, from the time when Lucas was working on the original Star Wars script:

Lucas had never been a particularly avid reader of science fiction novels. But he made a serious effort now. There was one author for whom he had always made an exception: Harry Harrison, a former illustrator and former Flash Gordon comic strip writer. Harrison offered stories that could be read on two levels: rollicking space adventures and satires of the science fiction genre. Bill the Galactic Hero spoofed Robert Heinlein’s masculine tales of space soldiers. The Stainless Steel Rat was a series of novels whose protagonist, Jim DiGriz, is a charming rogue and interstellar con man: a proto-Han Solo.

As a huge Stainless Steel Rat fan, that gave me chills. . . wonder why it never occurred to me. . .

Trivia break: Did you know the original name for Luke Skywalker was Luke Starkiller? The studio complained that people would assume the movie was about a serial killer who took out Hollywood stars.

The studio’s market research, which consisted of posing 20 questions to passers-by in a mall, also concluded that people would confuse the title with Star Trek.

Nice quote here:

Star Wars remains one of the best examples of the storytelling dictum that it is best to begin in the middle of things.

And if you take into account the three prequels, Star Wars starts at the exact midpoint of the saga!

Collectible alert: there’s apparently a plush puppet of slave bikini Leia. (I could not find it on eBay.)

My fave line from the book:

To be the ultimate fan–yet to still retain a finely tuned sense of the ridiculous. To shake your head at the folly and still love every second of it. This is a big part of the idea of Star Wars.

There’s a piece that explains the famous line in Empire when Leia tells Han she loves him and he answers, “I know.” Lucas didn’t get why people laughed at that, and had to be told, “Laughter was the only way you get an emotional release in what is clearly a very powerful and difficult scene.”

There’s an indictment of USC film school. . . (said the Bruin.)

This is awesome:

James Earl Jones himself, reading Vader’s line “I am your father,” had this reaction the moment he said it: “He’s lying.”

There’s also discussion about the hundreds of books that have been written in what is called the expanded universe. I read some of these a long time ago, so I don’t remember them well, but I do remember Grand Admiral Thrawn, from one of the first books, written by Timothy Zhan: He was a brilliant tactician who studied the art of any species he was in conflict with in order to understand their culture and thus outsmart them.

And you can tell by the name of this blog why I’m a fan of Mara Jade:

With her vibrant RED hair, green eyes, and full-figured leather jumpsuit, Mara is fast becoming one of the more popular Star Wars costume choices for women on the comic convention circuit: she offers all of the feisty fiery personality that Leia should have had but ultimately lacked.

Trivia break: Phantom Menace made more money in foreign markets than in the US. It made most of its money in countries where most of the audience were reading subtitles and didn’t care about the delivery of the dialogue anyway. The gross in Japan alone almost equaled the entire budget.

If that’s a dig as to the quality of the acting. . . actually, what else can it be?

A great moment from the new lady in Lucas’s life:

When he took her to meet the some of the employees at the Skywalker Ranch, she gleefully shouted, “Hello boys, it’s take your girlfriend to work day!”

How crazy is Japan for Star Wars?

This is the country where you can watch Darth Vader hawking Pacific League baseball, Nissan cars, and Panasonic electronics. You can visit Nakano Broadway, a six-floor mall in the heart of Tokyo, and find rare Star Wars toys and trinkets for sale on every floor. When George Lucas came to open the original Star Tours at Tokyo Disneyland, he was chased around the park by hordes of Japanese schoolgirls. {Shades of James Bond 40 years earlier.} Then fifty-five, he joked that he wished he were 20 years younger. Schoolgirls (and the occasional boy, but mostly schoolgirls) are still there, lining up in great numbers for the new Star Tours, which is the most popular exhibit in Tokyo Disneyland.

And we end the quotes with. . .

Visiting the island of St. Maarten in the Bahamas? You’ll want to stop in at the Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit, run by one of the creature shop artists who worked under Stuart Freeborn on The Empire Strikes Back; it’s one of cruise line Royal Caribbean’s most popular destinations on the island.

The book even includes a piece on how Disney bought Lucasfilm, which makes it pretty current.

These were just a few of literally hundreds of awesome behind-the-scenes moments. Even if you don’t consider yourself a Star Wars fan, this book is well worth the read.

P.S. Due to fat finger syndrome, I kept writing “Star Warts.” {Don’t take that as anything more than a joke. . . and don’t catch ‘em, they hurt like hell. . .}

;o)