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Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015): Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt, and directed by J. J. Abrams.  Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fischer, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, and Domhnall Gleeson.  Running Time: 135 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Okay, here’s the short version- it’s very good.  More than good, it’s damn near great, easily the best movie yet with Abrams’ name attached to it (thanks in no small part to an absence of his usually ubiquitous lens flare).  It takes the best in technical improvements that we got from the prequels but sticks to the main formula that made the originals so great, specifically focusing on well-written, well-acted core characters to carry us through the larger, heavier plot swirling around them.  It’s not perfect- the action is mostly forgettable, and the larger story contains a number of huge holes and question marks that can’t be fully assessed or critiqued until the movies are all out and we know what, exactly, they are building up to with what they show us here- but as far as starting us off on a new round of exciting Star Wars adventures is concerned, it does its job.  I had immense fun watching it, I think most people that see it will too, and I am now even more psyched for the next two films than I was before, which is basically all the movie needed to accomplish in order to be deemed a success. 

            And from here on in, spoilers.  Spoilers spoilers spoilers spoilers.  I won’t reveal everything, but I am going to delve in pretty deep here and discuss at least one major event in the film, so if you haven’t seen it already, I will not warn you again.  For my money, it’s worth seeing cold. 

            So.  Some 40-odd years after the events of Return of the Jedi, our old gang has split up within a galaxy once again experiencing war.  The fanatical First Order is spreading its influence, determined to rebuild the Empire-That-Was, and they are opposed by both the New Republic and an internal resistance, led by Leia.  Luke Skywalker has disappeared entirely, with both sides desperately seeking him out.  Leia needs him back so that he can rebuild the Jedi in order to maintain balance (an earlier effort apparently ended in failure), and the First Order wishes to, what else, destroy him so as to remove any lingering threat of the Jedi rising again, all the while constructing yet-another massive superweapon, this one capable of destroying multiple planets at once. 

            These are the broad strokes of the plot, but much like with A New Hope (which this movie’s story structure apes almost wholesale), the larger details we get are light, and are clearly just pieces of build-up for the later films.  For this first installment, nearly all of the running time is devoted to letting us get to know (and love) our new trio of core characters; Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a hotshot pilot, Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper with the First Order who defects after an ordered village massacre in the beginning of the film opens his eyes, and Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger living on a desert world that is most certainly NOT Tatooine.  In a series of homages to the original trilogy (some pleasantly well-done, some overblown), the three come into contact through a series of apparently-random circumstances that can only be excused in the realm of mythical fantasy, and are later joined by none other than Han Solo himself, as they try to return a certain droid bearing certain key information to Leia and the Resistance before the new superweapon of the First Order is able to destroy their home base. 

            I know I am not alone in feeling this, but if there is one drawback to this new series, it is that it will be very difficult to separate them in my mind from the longer-running, more detailed, and better-established Expanded Universe that was only recently deemed by the Disney Gods to be non-canon.  I know, it’s a lost cause and there’s no going back, so just let this be my one written farewell to my long-suffering and ultimately futile hopes of ever seeing Grand Admiral Thrawn, Gilad Pellaeon, Mara Jade, Jaina Solo, or Corran Horn on the big screen. 

            Not that this trilogy starting its own timeline is a bad thing, but I did find the wholesale abandonment of the richness of the EU particularly frustrating with this movie because, if there is one main issue I have with it, it’s that what little information we do get about the larger events in the galaxy since Return of the Jedi leaves some gaping questions open about why, exactly, despite all that was sacrificed and achieved in the original films, we are (at least, so it seems) right back where we started in A New Hope; a desperately under-equipped and outnumbered Resistance is the only hope against an impossibly Nazi-esque group of bad guys, led by a red-saber-wielding Dark Jedi (Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren). 

            Was anything of good achieved in the interim period between movies?  How did Luke end up apparently making the exact same mistakes Yoda and Obi-Wan did?  Why is that Leia never developed her force powers, at least a bit?  When the First Order fires up their weapon and claim to have destroyed “the capital and the fleet” of the New Republic, does that mean that we actually just saw Coruscant go up in flames?  Are the handful of fighter pilots we see at the end REALLY all that the good guys have on their side now?  TOO MANY QUESTIONS, TOO FEW ANSWERS. 

            Now, obviously, this is by clear, Disney-committee design, to whet our appetite for the next few films, but it’s perhaps a bit too slavish in sticking to the New Hope formula; given the huge emotions people have wrapped up in the original trilogy, just a little bit more information on what happened over the past few decades would not have been amiss.  Then again, since this is Abrams we’re talking about, and I am still nursing scars from Into Darkness, I can’t (yet) dismiss the possibility that some of this was thought up by him for show without thinking through the larger implications.  

            However, as aggravating as I personally find these questions, it must be said that they only marginally detract from what is still an excellent film, thanks mostly to an incredible cast.  Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac acquit themselves wonderfully as our new trio of main characters.  Finn and Rey blend wonderfully with Han Solo and Chewbacca, which is particularly crucial as their scenes together take up much of the running time.  Even if the rest of the film had been absolute shit, I would still be looking forward to the rest of the series just to see if those two get through okay.  Oscar Isaac will, hopefully, FINALLY end up as the household name he deserves to be, as his Po is one of the most fun things on screen, a daring ace pilot who combines the best of what Han Solo was and what Anakin Skywalker should have been.  Driver’s Kylo Ren (and no, I won’t go into his background here just yet) intrigues me, but we haven’t seen enough of him yet for me to be really sold.  I think I see the idea behind his character, and am very interested to see what they do with it, but he needs to get fleshed out a bit more first before we can be certain there’s more to him than just his emo Twitter feed

            In the end, not much else can be said about this one without waiting to see how they build on this new foundation they’ve created.  As you’ve read, I have my issues and qualms with the story as it currently If this is only the jumping off point, and the real story weight and plot details are awaiting us in the next two movies, and the possibilities of Po, Rey, and Finn are fully realized, then this movie will stand the test of time and be remembered as the start of something special.  If not, it will be remembered as the start of just another franchise let-down that failed to live up to its potential. 

            Neither, of course, can be predicted with any certainly at this point though, so for now, let’s all just come together again and enjoy a new, raucously fun Star Wars adventure.  It’ll be a bit before the next one comes out, and until then it is on us to hold back either too-early celebratory hype or premature dismissal of this new series as another vapid and empty cash-grab.  After all, my friends, extremism of any flavor is the path to the Dark Side. 

            May the Force once again be with this franchise, at long last. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Reflections: The Success of Welcome To Night Vale

            I find it eerily appropriate that my fresh copy of the Welcome To Night Vale novel arrived at my doorstep  at the tail-end of October, right before the weather shifted into full-on Autumn mode, and we spent a week drenched in a pervasive, endless, clammy, cold fog.  Sometimes the universe (and sometimes the World Government) sends us odd signs to mark off moments in our lives. 

            It has been well over 3 years since the first episode introducing us to the bizarre world of Night Vale aired, beginning with a warning to never approach a certain Dog Park, and featuring a “weather report” by none other than Joseph Fink himself.  Since then, what began as a small passion project has grown into genuine online phenomenon, with the bi-monthly podcasts now being supplemented by a host of constantly-changing merchandise, a series of unique live shows that have toured in North America extensively and are even starting to foray into Europe and Australia, and finally now in real-live book form.  Having taken up the podcast on a whim over 2.5 years ago, right around the release of the two-part Sandstorm episode, I am now one small part of a growing (and global) fandom. 

            The fun thing about being part of this kind of cult following is that you get to sort of drift through the world with your own private love of something, encountering fellow fans only in chance or in passing.  It is not all-pervasive like Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or gaggles of mysterious Hooded Figures.  You either know WTNV or you don’t.  You are in or you are out.  No all-powerful movie franchise or Trilogy phenomenon to eternally bind together the Hardcores and the general citizenry.  Just you, the device/website you use to download each episode, and the Void.  This could very well change in the future; the writers have expressed their general openness to all sorts of Night Vale-related projects, including a possible film, so who knows what could happen?  But for now, for all the millions of downloads and all the sold-out live shows (and the fact that the novel cracked the Top 5 Best Seller’s list on Amazon when it came out), there is still a beautiful sense of quietness, of privacy, and intimacy that reigns every two weeks when you sit down to listen to each new episode.  For all the wide appeal the show has, it still feels remarkably personal in its touch. 

            Part of this is thanks the incredible number of inside jokes, quotes, and references that are so off-the-wall insane out of context that they can only possibly have meanings to fans of the series.  An example; guess what my instant reaction was when my place of work, whose corporate colors perfectly match the purple of the show’s logo, announced we were switching over to a new IT program called “The Cloud?” 

            It has also inserted itself heartily into the growing “convention culture” that has been enabled by the Internet, where fans of even the most obscure things can find ways and means to meet and connect.  The live shows have a festival-like atmosphere not unlike an anime or comic convention, with many dressing up as their favorite characters (or conscious entities, or bodies of matter).  We casually dismiss haters and sceptics as people who “just don’t get it” when they scoff at our obsession.  And, perhaps most tellingly, the growing cast of characters have developed their own fanfolk bases within our curious little community.  

            Why?  Why this show?  Is it the oddness of the writing?  Have its myriad themes and philosophical ramblings tapped into some unspoken part of the Zeitgeist?  Has StrexCorp been forcing our hands all this time?  Or is it just the sexy voice (and no shame if it is)? 

            I have often wondered if much of the show’s popularity can be tied to its embrace (at least, on a surface level) of an almost post-modern, anti-religion/philosophy/ideology view of the nature of things.  We are caught in the flux of a time of immense, global change, and as part of that so many older social, political, and cultural strictures/traditions/norms are falling away.  Old ways of thinking are inadequate for the stormy present, but no new sets of beliefs or ideologies have risen to replace them.  Cool detachment and wholesale rejection of any dogma or system of belief (and I include any here, not just religious ones) are both the order of the day.   

            While it is highly debatable whether or not this is intentional on the part of the writers, much of the content of the show speaks to this current vibe of our time.  How many lines of Cecil’s proclaim an existentially empty existence, declaring humankind’s life utterly devoid of meaning?  I’ve lost count.  Through an explosion in our development, science is fast replacing religion as the accepted source of truth, and our expanded knowledge has brought us a comprehension of our smallness that was never truly possible before.  This, too, is a constant rumination in Night Vale- the universe is vast and inimitably complex, there can be no grasping for meaning, no finding of God, perhaps no God at all, for things are simply too big for that, and we too small, and the only comfort we have is the silence of the Void.  Are people drawn to the show because we all secretly (or not so secretly) agree that all we experience is nothing, and nothing is all there is? 

            Possibly, at least for some.  Although given that no two people on the planet share the exact same beliefs about anything, I doubt it, and the show’s creators have never given any indication they are trying to form a system of thought or belief of any kind. 

            Another possibility- is Night Vale merely riding the new wave of acceptance of the fluid nature of human identity sweeping much of the West?  Cecil himself comes out as gay not more than 5 minutes into the very first episode, and his ongoing relationship with Carlos has been a staple of the Night Vale universe for years without ever being overly emphasized.  It’s never been hammered into listeners as THIS IS SOMETHING MEANT TO MAKE A POINT.  It is simply accepted by everyone in the show, and by all of us as well, as something perfectly normal.  Many of the episodes deal with the illusion of physical differences, and while trans, queer, gender, or racial topics are only sometimes, if ever, addressed directly or by name, there are clear parallels in many episodic stories, describing a world that is open, inclusive, and representative. 

            The new novel has a prime example of this- the struggles of Diane Crayton’s emotionally normal teenage son Josh with just about every aspect of his physical, mental, and emotional identity is made explicit in how his physical body literally changes form, shape, and size almost every time she looks at him.  It makes the show a particularly refreshing escape from our own world, where we still have so much to work on before these issues cease to be seen as problems or “not normal.”  The world of Night Vale is inclusive, in ways, that, for the foreseeable future, ours can only dream of being.  And if that is not precisely the sort of escapism the realms of sci-fi and fantasy are meant to provide us, what is? 

            All of these are points in the show’s favor, and all are probably core aspects of its success (that, and the generous funding the writers secretly receive from the Apache Tracker).  But in my opinion, there’s another, less conscious reason why we have fallen for this show; WTNV, and other recent works like it in the booming podcast market, have become the conduit for us Millenials to uncover, in our own way, the joys and artistic power of spoken-word storytelling. 

            This despite past predictions to the contrary; the growing pervasiveness of camera phones of various stripes, laptops, and the rising cultural presence of gaming and online video were, until recently, taken as signs that my generation and those following us would be increasingly visual-oriented in our outlook on the world.  Pictures, short texts/memes, and videos have rapidly grown into the hottest forms of global communication, and this convinced many that industries like radio, as well as older oral traditions, would fall by the wayside, dying and forgotten as the world hurtles forward towards God knows what. 

            In one sense, this is not entirely untrue- the traditional forms of radio no longer hold the place they used to (no President, for example, will ever again think of using fireside chats as a way to plug policy ideas), and the possibilities for video art and general communication enabled by the internet are only just beginning.  Plus, the spread of technology (and a certain level of accompanying cultural homogenization) means that many oral traditions, some tens of thousands of years old, are becoming harder and harder to maintain, and many will inevitably die out. 

            But none of this means that simple speaking can’t still have force in our world.  Quite the opposite, in fact, and WTNV is proof.  We are animals that can never be solely visual.  In much the same way that music lovers and producers (regardless of age) are rediscovering the beauties of analog recordings amidst a torrent of digitalization, and certain stalwarts in the film industry fight to maintain use of old-school film, the spread of shows and podcasts like this one makes it clear that the incredible effect of listening to a tale woven with just sound can’t be erased from the world, or entirely forgotten, no matter how marginalized it might become.  There is remarkable power to be found in using nothing but our words and our attached collective meanings for them to create something both communally enjoyable and intimately personal.  Joseph Fink gives us words.  From them, we each weave our own, unlimited galaxies into existence. 

            The show’s deliberate play on language is not just a part of its trademark, bizarre humor, but rather its key feature- all the words it uses are real, English words in our world, but many of them have entirely different meanings and connotations in the universe of Night Vale than they do here (“librarian,” “antique,” and the concept of what closing up a shop entails spring to mind, to provide just a few examples).  It’s a hilarious, conscious, and brilliantly-executed play on the collective meanings of language, and the various social constructs we create for ourselves and unquestioningly accept as “the way things are.”  Cecil starts talking about something that we have one set of associations with in our world, but in bits and pieces (or sometimes all at once) we learn that the topic or word means something completely different over there. 

            And that is the primary reason why the world of Night Vale is best conveyed through spoken (and now also written) word, and not images- part of the excitement is listening for what surprises lie in store for us, what literally unimaginable aspects of the world are waiting for us to uncover in this week’s episode.  If the show were a film or TV or Youtube series, the oddities and differences would all be immediately visually apparent, and it would be that much harder and more complicated to create the never-ending cascade of surprises to our mental and imaginative senses that make the show so much damn fun to listen to. 

            I suppose I didn’t accomplish what I sent out to do with this post.  I’ve rambled on like a drunken Five-Headed Dragon, and I fear am no closer to understanding why Welcome To Night Vale is as beloved as it is.  Perhaps there is no one reason.  We are all here, together, in this metaphysical space of endless imagination, for different reasons and ends, and we arrived here along radically different paths.  But here we are, and here I very much hope we remain for a while yet.  Night Vale might be dangerous, and very often deadly (especially if you’re planning an intern anytime soon), but there is something compulsive and compelling about its characters and its strangeness, and the magnetic force of the words it’s built upon, that make me confident it will stand for some time to come.  Until, at the latest, the end of all things, whatever form that may take. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Counting Down: The Top 5 Star Wars Lightsaber Battles (So Far)

            We’re almost there, people!  By the time this post goes up, it will be officially possible to count down the days to the international release of Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens using just the pre-existing fingers on your hands.  And if you are at all like me, you can barely wait. 

            However, since we still have some time left to kill, and in order to fully prepare myself for this experience, I took the time the past few weeks to go back and relive all 6 of the original films (yes, ALL of them), starting with the originals and then jumping back and re-watching the much-maligned prequel trilogy as well.  And in doing so, I came to a conclusion- I love this franchise in its entirety.  So much so that, although revisiting each film with a somewhat-better-tuned critic’s eye did lead me to notice faults with both sets of films I hadn’t thought about as a child, I still found that I really didn’t care, and I don’t expect I ever will.  There is a vision that drives these stories, one greater than the limitations of its individual parts, and even some of the lesser writing or more ham-fisted directing/casting choices (and yes, both are bigger problems with the prequels) can’t bring them down. 

            Unfortunately, the movies alone weren’t enough to dispel the massive Force-fueled kick I’m on right now, so in addition to jumping back into the books as well (Shatterpoint, the Thrawn Trilogy, and Matthew Stover’s book for Revenge of the Sith are particular favorites), I decided to play a little game; since one of the mainstays of any proper Star Wars tale is the lighsaber combat- because lightsabers are and will always be one of the coolest concepts for a weapon to ever be created- I felt it would be worthwhile to try and hammer down the 5 best lightsaber-centered battles in the franchise (thus far).  Should we get more from the new movies to choose from- and I am very, very, very much hoping that we will- I might revisit or redo this list in a few years’ time once the new trilogy is complete. 

            With that having been said, here are what, in my opinion, make up the 5 coolest, most kickass, and all-around most emotional or important lightsaber fights, taken strictly from the current crop of 6 feature-length films.  Comments and disagreements are welcome in the comments below.  Enjoy! 

5. Yoda vs. Count Dooku, Episode II 

            While I can certainly understand the objections of critics/fellow Star Wars fans like Belated Media to the fact that Lucas has Yoda actually carry a lightsaber and fight, arguing that doing so goes against the philosophy that he represents, I must state for the record that I very respectfully disagree with them.  Because this encounter, short as it is, is nothing less than two minutes of pure, distilled AWESOME.  I love how Yoda moves, how he leaps and jumps and twirls, and how NOTHING can touch him.  Is it fan service?  Horribly blatant fan service?  Of course it is!  But it’s the RIGHT kind of fan service!

4. Luke vs. Darth Vader, Episode VI 

            It lacks the flash and technical prowess of the fights from the newer movies, but like its counterpart in Episode V (which we will get to presently), this struggle makes up for it in how heavily it drips with atmosphere, and comes laden with all the emotions the entire original trilogy had spent their collective running time meticulously building up, bit by bit.  This is (or will have been, once the new series is over) the culmination of both the original trilogy and the overarching story of the entire film set, the true moment where the prophecy of a Skywalker bringing balance to the Force comes to pass.  It’s also the final watershed moment for both Luke and his father, as Anakin overcomes the influence of the Emperor and Luke becomes a true Jedi Knight, allowing him to move forward and help properly rebuild the galaxy.  As such, there is a weight to this scene that very few action scenes on general, much less Star Wars ones, are able to carry. 

3. Maul vs. Obi-Wan/Qui-Gon, Episode I 

            I can still remember when the new Star Wars movies started up when I was still a kid, and in true Star Wars fashion the merchandising and marketing were EVERYWHERE.  There is, literally, no escape once the premiere of a Star Wars film is coming up and the ad campaign kicks into high gear.  And one of the first things Star-Wars-related I recall seeing was Darth Maul’s creepy-ass face and double-sided lightsaber plastered everywhere.  Much like the side-guards in the Force Awakens trailers everyone is arguing about now, one couldn’t but wonder back then how a lightsaber like that would actually work in combat. 

            What a payoff it was when we finally did get to the finale, and the result was, on a purely technical level, easily the most visually impressive and best-scored fight we’d yet gotten in Star Wars.  There was a smoothness to the action we hadn’t seen before, and even though (like with Yoda’s fight mentioned above) it didn’t have as much narrative behind it as the others on this list did, it turned pretty emotional by the end, when Obi-Wan is forced to overcome his grief over his master’s death quickly enough to also take on a Sith Lord head-to-head.  Sure, there are better ways they could have handled this aspect of Obi-Wan’s growth, but as it is, this is still one hell of a battle, one I never get tired of watching over and over again. 

2. Obi-Wan vs. Anakin, Episode III 

            Fun fact; Revenge of the Sith is, thus far, the only Star Wars film I had the chance to actually see in theaters.  And after rewatching it again for the first time in years, I think it’s not only the best of the prequels by far, but its greatest moments can stand right alongside anything in the original trilogy, and one of the highlights of those is the final confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan.  It is one of the longest and most drawn-out fights in the entire franchise, but every minute of it is worth it. 

            In stark contrast to many of the prequels’ worst moments, the acting here is key; Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen (who was always at his best in these movies where he didn’t have to read Lucas’ awful scripts out loud) both do a remarkable job selling the pathos of the moment; the grand strokes of the Star Wars legend, particularly those of the prequels, have the same perfect, reinforcing symmetry of human error and disaster of a classic Greek tragedy, and one of the best examples of this is the heart-breaking series of circumstances that force Anakin and Obi-Wan, a duo closer than brothers, to do battle to the death.  We knew going into this one that this was the defining sequence for both characters, and for all the other issues the film has, at least it got this part right. 

            Best shot; a fountain of lava shooting up the same time Anakin and Obi-Wan make a desperate lunge towards each other out on the soon-to-fall platform, with the Sith-red color of the environment perfectly opposing the radiant blue of their lightsabers.  Simply beautiful. 

1. Luke vs. Darth Vader, Episode V 

            The effects aren’t as visually dazzling as those in the prequel battles.  The stunts are not nearly as sweet to the eye as the smooth, graceful choreography in those selfsame films. 

            And yet, this is by the far the best and most viscerally powerful of all the examples of lightsaber combat out of all the films put together.  Why?  Because it nails down exactly what the final clash in Return of the Jedi got right- rich visual atmosphere and gripping, narrative-driven emotion- only it does them even BETTER.  I can’t put enough emphasis on how much I love the use of color here.  Almost everything is in deep shadow, with some parts (Vader himself in particular) often pitch-dark, which is the absolute best way to showcase the neon glow of a lightsaber, creating the best-possible contrast between the living, sky-blue of Luke’s blade, and the deep, blood-red of Vader’s. 

            And although it only has a few jumps or kicks, it is intense to watch, simply because it’s built on what is, up to that point, a flawless Hero’s Narrative.  Only one movie ago, we saw Vader cut down the only friend Luke had left after his family was killed.  Earlier in the same movie, we saw him vaporize blaster fire with a wave of his hand.  Vader had been built up big-time going into this, and his status as one of the greatest and most threatening villains of all time was well-established.  Even as the fight progresses, we know Luke isn’t really strong enough to beat him- not yet- and his growing sense of desperation to hold on as the fight builds in intensity is a great credit to how well Mark Hamill grew into the role.  For me, it will always remain not just the best lightsaber fight of the franchise, but one of the overall best scenes in the entire series to date. 

            Although, who knows?  Maybe Abrams and his crew really do know what they are doing, and this coming set of movies will have their own fights that only match, but even exceed the ones here.  If so, expect a revised version of this to come out in about 3.5 years’ time.  If not…..then no galaxy in existence will be enough to contain my Sith-like rage. 

-Noah Franc