Wednesday, January 13, 2016

You don't need this review to encourage you to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens

One out of four Americans has already seen it[1] and the reviews from aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, have the film at more than 90% favorable. None of that matters to me, I only care about my opinion, cough-cough. I’ve already seen it four times; the film flies by like it’s the Millennium Falcon trying to set a new record for the Kessel run [2] so it’s taken me a few views to really dissect this joyride of a film.

You don’t need to read the opening scrawl either, but it’s there and gives a quick setup of what’s to come.  Luke is missing; the evil Empire has risen again as the New Order, and the fledgling Republic is in trouble. Princess Leia, now a general in the Resistance, needs her brother’s help: he’s our only hope. She’s dispatched their best pilot, the dashing and handsome Poe Dameron and his astromech droid BB-8, to gather a map to her brother’s hideout. The New Order gets word of this, and is hot on the pilot’s heels because they want to destroy the Jedi once and for all.

If this sounds too familiar, you might be disappointed, but this is an origination tale for another trilogy, and there’s plenty of new along with the old to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, cheering for the new heroes and hissing at the new villains. If we’ve learned anything from the previous two trilogies, it’s that history repeats itself, the force runs strong in the generations of the Skywalker clan, evil never dies -- it takes on new forms, and Star Wars uses poetic symbolism to reflect one moment upon another across the vastness of the galaxy and time itself.

The opening shot is a beaut: A Star Destroyer, mostly in shadow, fills the screen but soon four smaller spacecraft fly out from underneath, filling our view with Stormtroopers prepping for a landing; it’s an invasion force lead by Kylo Ren, a Sith apprentice.  Ren quickly shows his powerful use of the force, but he has a few issues that make him unstable and that’s where the fun begins. He captures the pilot, Poe Dameron, but not before BB-8 takes off with the map to Skywalker deftly hidden inside.
What follows is a high-speed chase, with the New Order always in violent pursuit, barely a step behind our heroes. Heroes? Yes, BB-8 not only charms his way into our hearts, he blithely gather’s helpers, Rey and Finn, along the way.

Rey is a scavenger, hardened to life on a parched desert planet, Jakku. Jakku makes Tatooine a paradise by comparison. Finn is a renegade Stormtrooper who immediately overcomes his conditioning during the opening invasion: a ruthlessly brutal attack on the village where Poe Dameron is captured. We witness the gory details of what Luke Skywalker might have missed when his Aunt and Uncle were brutally killed in the very first Star Wars film, A New Hope.

While Rey, Finn and BB-8 are on the run, they meet up with Han Solo, and Chewbacca. The two space pirates are back in action doing what they do best: smuggling dangerous cargo. That cargo, really scary monster aliens called Rathtars, definitely need their own spinoff film[3], because audiences haven’t seen a truly frightening monster since Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979. This being a Star Wars film, Rathtars are just a tiny piece of a much larger, richer galaxy that sprung from George Lucas’ imagination and continues under director J.J. Abrams’ talented and adoring hands.

A first rate cast, and a team of filmmakers that is the envy of many a director, assist Abrams in bringing us one of the three best chapters of the seven Star Wars films. He’s further assisted by John Williams’ magnificent score, perhaps Williams’ best ever: subtle and sublime. If you’re not moved to tears by it, you’ve lost that little child inside you. 

Listen, or watch again: it’s your only hope.

[1] $815,000,000/8.61(average ticket price) = 94,657/319,000,000 = 29%. Some are return viewers so I dropped it to 25%
[2] The Kessel Run requires passing close to the Maw, a black hole cluster and Han insanely, but safely, ventures through that cluster, shorting the trip down to twelve parsecs. Expect this to be part of the newly announced Han Solo Star Wars anthology movie.
[3] Finn asks Rey if she’s heard of the Trillia Massacre. We can assume since this is Star Wars, there’s a story there: a really scary story. Forget Boba Fett and Obi Wan. We want Rathtars!

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie, A Man Not of This Earth.

Do you remember Davey Jones? Not the guy who played one of four band members in the 1960's hit TV show The Monkees, this guy was a skinny, red-headed, gap toothed rock artist who blasted upon the world stage in 1969 with his hit single "Space Oddity."
His real name was David Robert Jones, but we know him by his stage name, David Bowie. His impact was immediate, no less than a celestial object striking the earth, he was felt far and wide. I was barely into my teens and I could't believe what I was hearing and then seeing as Bowie continued to transform the concept of what an artist is. He was the first non-heterosexual I'd ever heard of and for me, became an instant role model.  Just knowing that David Bowie was out there and doing fine made life here easier for an 11 year old alien from another planet.

Fiercely creative, kind, generous, but strong and unwilling to take shit from anyone, he went off the rails rarely. Once he claimed to be an admirer of fascism, but retracted it later, explaining that he was out of his mind and heavily under the influence while interviewed. He kept working up to the end, his latest album, BlackStar was released on his 69th birthday, just two days ago.

You can read more about him elsewhere, but I'd like to leave you with the following. It's a vocal only track of Bowie and Freddie Mercury recording "Under Pressure." Listen to the raw emotion of these two great artists with only their voices, multitracked and sometimes doubled or chorused as support. Try not to cry, I dare you.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Volkswagen Electric MicroBus Tease

CES is a great place to check out new concept cars. Seven years ago, I fell in love with a Jaguar XJ8 L concept and I actually drive one of those now. So thankfully for Car Geeks, concept cars sometimes become reality, and right now there's a lot of buzz at CES regarding Volkswagens latest MicroBus tease, the Budd-e.

It's an all electric microbus with a 101kWh battery, 93 mile per hour maximum speed, and a maximum range somewhere between 373 and 233 miles. If they build it, it will come in multiple configurations, much like past Microbuses did in their heyday of 1950 through 1979.

I'm not at CES this year, but Car & Driver has a great set of photos here,

Volkswagen's press release is here with all the details. Take it all with a grain of road grit, 'cuz Volkswagen has teased us with a bus update before. They know that they had one of the most popular cars in the world, and those iconic vehicles have a massive following. The nostalgia alone will drive sales through the roof if they get this reimagining right.
Volkswagen Microbus Concept from 2005
I'm a huge fan of the VeeDub microbus. My hubby and I own one and it was my first attempt redesigning anything. We started with a 1977 Westfalia with 2.0 liter engine.

The old girl cleans up nice

The engines were the same as Porsche used in their 914, but the bus was much too heavy to get any real power out of them and the air cooling left them burning hot at 220 degrees.

It now has a Fat Performance Racing  engine redesign and with the dual 454 Weber carburetors and computer controlled twin turbo oil coolers, this bus can really move!

Fat Performance Racing Engine
We've yet to see the engine get hotter than 180 degrees going 90 mph in 100+ degree weather, so those oil coolers work like magic. You should see the looks you get from Porsche Cayennes, and BMW X5's as you creep up on their tails, "asking" them to pull to the right while you pass them.  Gas mileage has really suffered though, and I have yet to take her back down to Cabo or cross country to the Keys until I feel comfortable that I can handle the range issue.

She's a lot of fun though, with LED colored lighting inside and out, 5700 watts of audio she's the ultimate beach party machine.

Racing seats - comfortable for long drives
Toilet tucked away under that ottoman.
She's got handsfree telephone and automation, Broadband Wi-fi, 2 Monitors to play Xbox or watch movies on if you get board on long trips or tired of camping. She sleeps 4 comfortably and in a pinch her onboard toilet is really handy if it's cold at night or you can't make it to the next bathroom.

The galley has an ice box, a pull out pantry, and she has three Optimus deep cycle gel batteries to keep her electrical needs going. There's a solar trickle charger to keep the batteries topped up when no electrical hookups are available. When electrical hookups are available, the inverter will recharge the batteries and keep the music playing.
Even with all these modern features, she's still almost 40 years old. She requires a garage and is a fussy girl sometimes, so she's not an ideal ride for the 99%.

Top is popped

New Technology Enhancements in the Dash

Mappa Burl Cabinetry withy honey finish and white
marine vinyl complements the exterior color scheme.

White Vinyl cleans up great with 409 and a terry cloth
towel - great for dogs or wetsuits!

Eat and drink without stopping - the sink and
 Caesarstone counter on the right

Upper bunk

Another view of the upper bunk

Upper bunk monitor

Bench seat collapses into a lie flat bed

The back half of the bed is also a cargo area

Fat Performance Engine

Monday, January 4, 2016

Geek Out On...Misanthropes & Star Wars

George Lucas created a delightful galaxy of long ago and far, far away that has captivated audiences around the world since 1977, but that creation has a dark side that has nothing to do with the Lords of the Sith. I’m talking about misanthropic “fan-boy” types who grew up while the original trilogy of films were being made. When Mr. Lucas started modifying them to match his original vision and to make the six-film saga feel more seamless, those fans felt that their childhoods were being violated. These are just movies after all, and we live in a digital age where music is constantly remixed, no photo is left un-Photo-Shopped, and films get multiple releases in special editions and director’s extended-cuts, but only Star Wars has a fundamentalist cult with one credo: Thou shalt not make modifications!

There are different types of Star Wars fans to be sure and I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind that the word, “fan” is really just the colloquial for “fanatic,” but know that we fans are not just enthusiastic devotees of all things “The Force.” Some of us are collectors, Costume-players, droid-builders, fan-filmmakers, musical score devotees, and so on. Basic level fans might argue endlessly on whether Han Solo or Greedo shot first, or if it was Luke or Anakin who finally brought the force into balance.

One thing most Star Wars fans agree on: everyone hates Jar-Jar Binks. If you don’t know who Jar-Jar is, watch Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and you can decide for yourself whether you like him or not.

My big confession that I’ve never shared with anyone: I like Jar-Jar. He’s annoying, yes, and maybe borders a bit on an old racist Hollywood stereotype of step-and-fetch-it, and his Caribbean accent doesn’t help him much, but I’m not sorry to say, I still like him. He’s kind, sweet, and always trying to help, and even though he’s clumsy and accident-prone, he’s still a good guy. I put him in the same category that I put Prissy from ‘Gone With the Wind’ in: annoying and troublesome, but lovable.

Another thing that differentiates me from many Star Wars fans: I understand that creatively, legally and morally, Star Wars was George Lucas’ creation. As a loving, committed fan, no matter how many times I’ve purchased the films and soundtracks on different formats, no matter how many tickets I’ve purchased to watch them on the big screen, I know they belong to George Lucas, and he can do with them as he pleases. I don’t really care that he modified them afterwards. That he has done so has no effect one way or another on my happiness, my life, or even my ability to enjoy Star Wars. They were his to play with and those modifications were a mixed bag: some I liked (the new music at the end of Return of the Jedi), some I didn’t (Darth Vader saying “Nooooooo” before tossing you-know-who over the side). I appreciate his efforts to try and make Star Wars better, and yet, though I can also empathize with those who feel betrayed by those same changes, I don’t like the tone that those unhappy Star Wars fans took. Some of the hate that came Mr. Lucas’ way was inappropriately mean, rude, cruel and out-of-line. But there you have it: the dark side of fandom. That dark side is why Mr. Lucas no longer wants to make movies for the public. You probably don’t feel sorry for him, though. He sold his creations to Disney for $4,050,000,000.00.

It’s really no surprise that fans behave so badly when we live in a world where a U.S.  Presidential candidate can behave like an ill-mannered brute and speak ungentlemanly in public about members of the opposite sex, make racist remarks on a weekly basis, and astoundingly, his favorability in polls continues to rise. The more outrageous the lies he tells, the higher his ratings go. So it’s no wonder that public discourse has fallen so low. He’s a wealthy, successful man, so why wouldn’t he become a behavioral role model for many in our nation, the land of the American Dream? After all, Donald Trump is the epitome that dream.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened on a Wednesday to nearly unanimously glowing reviews from critics and fans alike, but by Friday, while audiences continued to pack theaters, the contrarians, naysayers and misanthropes began to blog about supposed plot-holes and inconsistencies.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens has broken nearly every box office record, and yet, these self-appointed sages point their crooked little fingers at the rest of us, who, like the Emperor in his new clothes, have been duped; only they are clever enough to see the truth.

Reading through these rants isn’t an easy task, bad grammar (the plural of “Jedi” is “Jedi”, not “Jedis”) and sloppy writing aside, each of these plot-hole points is often comprised of a mélange of sometimes unrelated multiple points. That one of the misanthropic writers claims to be an associate professor in the English department of a University is a bit surprising.

It is that professor whom I decide to take on again after I previously worked through 24 of his 40 “plot-holes” -- I stopped there because I realized that perhaps I had better things to do with my time than bother with a malcontent over the holidays. Cheerful parties beckoned me away, but after a few days of my blog blowing up and getting much encouragement, I decided to complete the task, but first there was another post from the professor. His latest attempt, 20 More Plot Holes, is also a half-baked attempt to spread his Grinch-like holiday cheer.

Address those below, I do, young Padawans, and fear not, for my ally is the force. I have not fallen to the dark side. For those of you who take umbrage with my skewing him from time to time: relax, I’m just poking back at him in a style commensurate of his own. Read on only after taking the following to heart: WARNING! SPOILERS FOLLOW THIS TEXT!
1. Starkiller Base has been constructed to allow it to suck all the energy out of a star thousands of times its size. Do the math on that. Or, if you like, do the science-fictional math. Neither is anything but ludicrous; neither shows writing effort.
Starkiller Base sucks some, not all, of the energy from the star, and then concentrates it into an aimable beam that can destroy multiple planets or an entire star system. The host star goes dim, temporarily, from being drained and after that, the base fires.

The star didn’t “go out” permanently after the Republic’s core system was destroyed or it wouldn’t have been available to charge Starkiller up this second time to take out the Resistance.
2. If Starkiller Base is a weaponized, orbit-locked planet that can't be flown, it's the worst weapon ever and not one the First Order would ever have constructed. Why construct such an object directly under the nose of the very Republic it aims to destroy? 
Starkiller Base doesn’t need to move to destroy planets; it works just fine in the movie. Maybe it needs to be close to the planets in the core to do its job? It was built close enough to do what it was intended to do. Maybe the Republic thought the New Order was building the Starkiller to protect them? Listening to  General Hux’s speech, you get that he has recently found out that the Republic has been secretly supporting the Resistance so now it’s payback time.
3. Why does Maz Kanata keep her most prized and valuable possession in an unlocked chest in a publicly accessible basement?
Maz never says it’s her most valuable and prized possession, that’s your insinuation, but she clearly knows that Rey is down there, so she shows up and checks out what’s happening. Seems like she’s got that covered.

*Upon rewatching today, I spotted that the lock on the door where the chest is, goes from red (locked) to white (unlocked), when Rey comes close to the door. Either the lock has been set to sniff for Skywalker DNA, or Maz remotely opens it for her. Either way, the lightsaber is protected. (edited, 1-8-16)
4. Speaking of Maz Kanata's cantina, before the heroes enter it, Han (who sure as heck knows from "dangerous") makes it sound incredibly dodgy -- so much so that he tells Rey and Finn not to even look at anything once they're inside; however, the patrons they encounter couldn't be friendlier.
 Han never says it’s "dangerous," he tells them not to stare, which is a warning about her "eyes" thing. Maz is a thousand years old, warm, enigmatic and quite Yoda-like. Her hang out is a cool, friendly place with a few dodgy characters thrown in to spice things up, but Han never says it’s dangerous. That was in Episode IV and was Obi-Wan warning about Mos Eisley.
5. When Rey lands on Takodana, she says that she never imagined so much green could exist in the entire galaxy. The problem here is that we also know that every single night Rey dreams of an oceanic world dotted with idyllic and gorgeously lush islands.
What movie did you watch? Rey never speaks of dreaming about an oceanic world dotted with idyllic islands. You confabulated this and made more of the moment than it was supposed to be: Rey’s full appreciation of the beauty of Takodana, her first green world.

*Upon rematching the film today, Kylo senses that she has dreamed of an ocean, and in it, an island. No "dreams every night" were mentioned, but still, when we first see that actual island chain, as Rey does, they all appear rocky and desolate, not lush and green. Kylo never says they're lush.  Only after she lands and climbs further we see the highland covered in thick moss, hardly lush. Rey may not even remember this dream after waking. Have you never had a repeated dream that you finally consciously remember for the first time after waking? (edited 1-8-16)
6. Has any film, in any genre, ever allowed a sketchy, background-unknown defector from the Bad Guy camp (Finn) such quick in-person access to the Supreme Commander of the Good Guys (Leia) as we see here, and with so few questions asked? 

Finn is anything but sketchy, he bravely rescued their best pilot, Poe, a key member of the Resistance and risked everything to do so. Poe vouched for him with Leia. It seems you don’t like Finn very much. It’s as if you’re predisposed to dislike him, calling him a janitor, and all the other disparagements. Hmmm.
7. Rey remembers quite clearly that she's been told not to leave Jakku, in fact that memory is so imprinted on her psyche that it's effectively her Prime Directive, and yet she has no memory whatsoever of the face of the person (or any of the people) who communicated to her that life-defining piece of information.
Children and adults forget faces, even the faces of parents. In Rey’s case, it’s been twenty years since she’s seen her family. You lack a basic understanding of human psychology and cognition. I can’t wait to read your writing.
8. Why are there Stormtroopers using giant tasers in this film?
The stormtrooper is using a modified electrostaff similar to the ones General Grevious’s droid bodyguards used in Episode III, Revenge of the Sith. In that film, like this one, its an effective weapon against a lightsaber, and since The First Order is looking for Luke Skywalker, they’ll need this as a defensive weapon against a powerful Jedi.
9. Sticking with the "Second-Rate First Order" theme, let's just say it: "Flametroopers" are (a) cool-looking, and (b) have absolutely no place in the Star Wars universe.
What weapon did the Stormtroopers use to cook Luke’s poor Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen? Real Star Wars fans have been waiting for Flametroopers since 1977.
10. One more toy-related gripe: certain toys licensed for the movie appear to not be in the movie -- suggesting another egregious money-grab.
Its a good first step that you're self aware enough to realize you're griping. I think you weren’t paying close enough attention, though. Many folks will watch this frame by frame when they get the Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Download and they’re going to want one of  those specialized trooper blasters used by the First Order’s 501st column. That said, the toys were out before the final cut was done, so who knows. I’ll give you this one: big bad Disney makin’ money on toys. Buy some stock and stop bitching, for Yoda’s sake!
11. Since when, in the history of space films, have spacecraft in a well-guarded spaceship hangar needed to be tethered?
You’re reaching here. Just. Stop. Whining. Remember the broadside attack from Episode III, when ships, droids and Clone Troopers were sucked out into space? It’s a new, good idea and it makes for a very cool sequence.

*edited - Turns out the tether is isn't a tether at all, but a power and data cable.
12. Han Solo and Chewbacca have spent nearly every day together for forty years, often fighting off baddies in small skirmishes and giant battles, but Han has never before tried Chewbacca's bowcaster?
I’m going to have to reach a bit here because you make a good point. Maybe Chewbacca is getting really old, so maybe this is the first time he’s been shot, so, first time for Han with the bowcaster. Really, though, who cares? It’s a fun moment. Star Wars was modeled after Flash Gordon and Saturday morning serials. You are too serious for Star Wars!
13. Returning to the "Tasertrooper": the only reason Finn doesn't die in this movie is that a Stormtrooper on Takodana inexplicably chose to fight him with a taser rather than shooting him with a blaster.
Maybe the trooper wants to have a little fun with the “traitor”, so this will stretch it out Finn’s suffering a bit. He probably assumes Finn is no Jedi and will not be too proficient with the lightsaber, so… see above, fun, Saturday serial, like Indiana Jones. You are so loosing your fan card!
14. For folks trying to hide BB-8 from the First Order, BB-8's friends sure make some inexplicable, unnecessary decisions to trot him out in public.
BB-8 is a man about town. He goes where the action is. That’s why he uses Axe Droid Polish. It removes stubborn sand from hard to reach places: nooks and crannies where you might want to hide your stolen plans or maps…

He’s the holder of the McGuffin and everyone is looking for him. No place to hide, no time to escape; this is essentially a chase film structure, like the Empire Strikes Back. Come on, teach, you know this stuff.

On the freighter, Han keeps him with him as collateral to make sure Rey and Finn don't escape. On Takodana, they aren't about to leave BB-8 sitting in the Falcon, they need to keep a close eye on the droid, protect the map.
15. When Finn, a First Order defector who no one knows very well, reveals to Han and Chewie that he's lied to them about his knowledge of Starkiller Base, and that he's really only there to rescue his prospective girlfriend, who's also a big unknown to Han and Chewie, why doesn't Han let Leia know that they've been had?
Han relates to Finn, likes him, and calls him “Big Deal” to point out that he knows the score, and he’s no fool. They’re kindred spirits, so Han isn’t really that upset, he’s letting Finn know that he understands why he wants to rescue Rey, who he’s also fond of (offered her a job on the Falcon), he’s also reminding him of what the stakes are. It isn’t all that different from his repartee with Leia in Hope and Empire.

BTW, Han’s not exactly in communication with Leia. He’s on another planet and they don’t have a walkie-talkie or cell phone to text warnings to each other, fahgawdsake!
16. Why can't Starkiller Base be used until it's dark, as Poe (oddly) insists? Seems like it can be used whenever it's taken in enough energy, which would be, well, whenever it's taken in enough energy. Time of day should have nothing to do with it.
Starkiller Base sucks some of the energy from the star and concentrates it into a beam. The star goes dim, temporarily, from being drained, and that’s the time when the base fires. The star didn’t go out after the Republic’s core system was destroyed or it wouldn’t have been available to charge Starkiller up this second time. Do I really have to repeat myself? Time of day… you’re kidding right?
17. I know that in sci-fi, people survive crazy crashes all the time -- but at some point it gets ridiculous. ..Here, Poe and Finn seem to lose all navigation control over their Tie Fighter and crash head-on into a planet from an unimaginable (literally hyper-atmospheric) height.
Their TIE fighter is shot down by the Star Destroyer, and you can clearly see that Finn is attached to a parachute and eject chair when he wakes up after the crash, so, plausible. Did you also miss Poe explaining that he ejected from the TIE fighter before it crashed and woke up alone in the dark, unable to find Finn or the ship?
18. Kylo Ren can read Rey's mind from a distance, which is why he tells his subordinates that she's going to steal a plane from the hanger to escape -- so why didn't he know exactly where she was on Starkiller Base? And if he wasn't reading her mind, and was instead just speculating, where was that foresight when he left a single lightly armed Stormtrooper/James Bond to guard her -- despite already knowing she was a Force-user as powerful (or even more powerful) than him?
The force doesn’t allow one to read minds from a distance, and isn’t always reliable when nearby, because a stronger opponent can block you. The dark side clouds Yoda’s and the council’s awareness in the prequel trilogy, and that is happening here.

Bad guys make foolish mistakes in every good versus evil genre film from James Bond to Tarantino, a commonly used trope. I’d be dropping your class prof!
19. A little petty, but still irksome: since when do blaster wounds cause massive bleeding? I hate scripts calling for a sea change just to score emotional points or sell tchotchkes. In this instance, Abrams and Kasdan knew Finn's conversation narrative was weak, so they threw in some random, implausible, and non-canonical gore to make it stick.
Petty? You? No, say it ain’t so! More self awareness is good, brah! You can hate it all you want, but I loved it. There’s blood and gore after the Mos Eisley Cantina lightsaber attack in A New Hope. I say the gore-door was opened by George Lucas then, the defense (J.J. and Larry) went with it, and the Judge is going to allow it, counselor!
20. Even accepting that Jakku was Finn's first military assignment of any kind, as many readers of my first article on the film clearly did, are we to assume that he was entirely in the dark about the giant, racist, homicidal, Galaxy-spanning terrorist organization he was mopping floors for?
When is enough, enough? For me, the attack on Jakku was particularly brutal and ruthless, killing everyone but Poe, so audiences can see why that would be enough for Finn.

Phew, all done!

I feel fortunate that I can truly enjoy this film, the most delightful, fun, Star Wars episode we’ve had since The Empire Strikes Back. I feel sorry for those unhappy cynics that can’t or won’t allow themselves be transported again to a galaxy far, far away. Apparently, Awakens lovers, We're not alone, for the film is currently the second most successful film in history, earning $1.5 billion so far, and is poised to become number one very soon.