Monday, December 21, 2015

There has been an awakening...

**MANY spoilers were used in the making of this review**

It was a Star Wars weekend for my family.  And it will probably continue on into a Star Wars month.  I mean, these films must be seen on the big screen!  I must also say that seeing the film a second time helped increase my opinion of it.

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

There were many surprises in this film.  There were also some earth-shattering shocks.

The Initial Viewing:   

The previews left me wondering if I would like the character Finn.  Despite my hesitation, I really loved both Finn and Rey (especially Rey).  They were a great duo.  Of course, another great duo truly led this film to greatness… as Han and Chewie stepped onto the Millennium Falcon, the theater audience clapped and cheered.  And the two really stepped up their game.  They were hilarious in their banter and charming in their comradery throughout the movie. 

Ace pilot Poe Dameron did not make much of an impression on me.  He kinda fell into the ranks of Wedge, which is fine.  He had some attitude, and his wit when confronting Kylo played well.  I can tell he’ll be featured more as the story progresses, but for this film, he was totally outshone by his other half of this third duo: Poe & BB-8. 

BB-8: Wow.  My favorite part of the film was BB-8 giving a thumbs up.  Hilarious!  It’s amazing how a character that speaks no English is easily understood just by the tilt of the head or the energy behind their mechanical beeps.  He was definitely a fun, heartwarming, and a really likeable droid along the lines of R2, who was absent for almost the entire film sadly.  But BB-8 is the type of humorous character who is necessary to the plot line and also holds your interest throughout the story.  He added some lightness to a world darkening around the main characters. 

In terms of imperials, I think Phasma and Hux were two characters that should have been combined into one: Capt. Phasma.  I found Hux to be a worthless character who whined and held almost no significance to the plotline.  He gave an order.  Yippee.  He made a speech.  Not impressive.  Someone else could have done the same things he did.  His character was so 1 dimensional that he could easily have been replaced with someone else.  We’re not talking Grand Moff Tarkin here who oozed power and malevolence in Episode IV.  That was a part that could only be played by Moff Tarkin whose actions brought about the destruction of Alderaan and definitely heightened the tensions of the original film.  Hux should have been left on the cutting room floor.  He was like a whining teenager, “Kylo did this, and I thought we should do this.”  Phasma and/or Kylo could have performed his duties easily.  He carried no significance and just felt like wasted space. 

Speaking of Kylo… I have never hated a Star Wars character more than I hate him.  When you have a new character kill a beloved original, there is no going back from that.  There is no redemption.  I want him to die (my lightsaber is changing to red as we speak!).  He may be the son of Han and Leia, but he needs to be gone.  His murder of Solo caused my daughter to cry for the rest of the film, and Han is not even one of her favorite characters!  The silence in the theater after the bridge scene was ominous.  It was heavy and sad.  Han was the guide of this film for Finn and Rey, much like Obi Wan in Episode IV.  He gave them confidence and hope.  Rey was beginning to find a future with Han and Chewie.  Darth Vader may have killed Obi-Wan in Episode IV, but we did not have episodes I - III to get to know the character prior to Obi’s death.  Han’s death is a huge blow to fans like me.  Even my husband who was never a huge fan of Solo and always preferred Chewbacca shared in my abject hatred of Kylo after the movie. 

While Darth Vader killed off the Jedi (a feat Kylo is hoping to complete), including children in training, as well as Obi-Wan, his motivation initially was to save the woman he loved.  He truly believed he was doing what was necessary to save Padme from death.  He was misguided, and he was also pained when he had to kill.  You could see in Anakin's eyes that it hurt him to do these things, but he did it with the belief it would help him save Padme.  Anakin was not able to save his mother in time.  For Padme, he would do whatever was in his power to do.  In Episode VII, Kylo comes off as a spoiled child who throws tantrums when he does not get his way.  The audience has not been told of his motivations.  What caused him to hate his father so much?  Maybe we'll know in a subsequent movie, but at this point, his character is not showing any redeeming qualities.  He's a jerk and a bully.

But the moment I had been waiting for was Princess Leia.  I had grown up as a child wanting to be her.  Seeing her 30 years later was a bit of a reality shock, especially seeing that Leia and Han have now separated.  Also the fact that the fictional development of their relationship has largely been destroyed (the ‘alternate reality’ excuse is keeping my memories from reading those books alive) was a shock.  I kept hoping that perhaps they would twist in the long-loved fictional narratives of the children of Han and Leia and their ongoing relationship as husband and wife.  Instead, the relationship has been fractured and their lives largely separated.  I felt like Luke when he learned the horrible truth about his father and found myself wanting to cry “NOOO!”  I was also hoping to the extreme that Leia would be an active force user.  Luke said in ROJ that she would learn to use her power as he did.  Sure, she’d still lead the resistance as their general, but she could wield with a lightsaber now versus a gun, right?  Unfortunately, none of this really came to fruition. 

Women in Science Fiction:

In a recent article by Meredith Woerner, Tribune News Service (link provided below), the role of Princess Leia “ignited the hearts and minds of little bun-wearing heroes across the galaxy.”  This definitely included me.  Finally a woman in the early 80s had an active role in fight scenes and intellectual planning.  There were so few of these types of roles in film, especially in science fiction (my favorite genre).  I was also so mad at the way women were portrayed, particularly how they were dressed. 

“Judge me by my size, do you?”

“Return of the Jedi” is my favorite Star Wars film.  While this film is largely ranked last in many fans’ opinions, my rank is largely due to the fact that Princess Leia’s role was impactful.  She was actively, physically fighting against the Empire throughout the film.  She was on the ground storming the Imperial base with the troops, she snuck into Jabba’s palace as a bounty hunter and started a thermal nuclear detonator to get her way (and protect her cover too), she choked Jabba the Hutt to death, she climbed on a speeder without hesitation to shoot down some stormtroopers and stop their team’s presence from being reported (even Luke hesitating in taking such action), she even got shot and still was able to take down two guards like a sniper!  In ROJ, finally, she was a participant in the main action of the film.  Looking at the first film, yes, she broke free from the stereotypical ‘damsel in distress’ role as she minced words with her captures, resisted torture methods to reveal the location of the hidden rebel base, and helped take control of her own rescue when things went awry.  Still, when it came time for the final battle, she sat on the side lines.  In “Empire,” she was largely running away to meet up with the fleet after their escape from the Hoth battle.  And while she showed immense courage staying behind and directing the Hoth offensive, literally being dragged from the command center by Han Solo, she did very little to move the plot along in the film.  Though her escape from Bespin was pretty epic with her marksmanship and, again, needing to be dragged away from the battle as she shot down Stormtroopers still her role was different from Han’s and Luke’s in that during the biggest showdowns of the movie, she was kept “safely” on the sidelines.   Though you did get to see her piloting a bit in Empire as well, “ROJ” gave audiences a new look at female heroines in film.  It’s sad to read in Meredith Woerner’s article that there were female X-Wing pilots filmed but then left out from the final film in the editing process.  Did George Lucas wonder if they would not be accepted by a largely male audience?  Too bad he did not realize how many young girls were also sitting in that same audience and how much those pilots would have inspired them.  That was one of my main critiques about the original films: no female fighter pilots.  The films had bridged other gaps, but fighter piloting was never crossed.  Seriously, no women want to help free the galaxy outside of Princess Leia and (very minimally) Mon Mothma? 

When “Star Trek: The Next Generation” came to television, I found an instant favorite in Tasha Yar - a tough, strong-willed security chief for the flagship of Starfleet.  Then… she died!  Damn, I was so upset that the actress chose to leave her groundbreaking role.  Since that time, the roles of women in Star Trek continued to be minor.  I could only imagine what “might have been” if Tasha Yar had stayed.  It wasn’t until “Star Trek: Voyager” that women really took the front seat in this franchise.

“Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.”

So what will these new films offer young girls, like my own daughter, when they sit down in an audience filled with crazy excited adult fans?  Actually, something pretty wonderful. 

Rey, one of the main characters of the film, is the best addition to the SW canon since Mara Jade appeared in Timothy Zahn’s best-selling series “The Thrawn Trilogy.”  After seeing the film, everyone in my family agreed that Rey was the best character of the movie.  What’s great about her is that she’s tough, independent, loyal, and still vulnerable.  She goes through quite the journey in “The Force Awakens.”  Her battle with Kylo Ren is definitely the perfect climax to the film.  There is so much more to her, and I will barely be able to stand the wait for the next film to find out what more there truly is!  It’s hard to describe how great her character is, and this short paragraph barely does it justice, but without her, I highly doubt this film would have connected with me the way it did. 

There was a lot of hype around another female character in the film, Captain Phasma.  Unfortunately, her role was rather underutilized.  I’m glad to read in the Woerner’s article that she will be returning.  However, I hope her role finds substance.  Perhaps she can shove Hux down a trash compactor. 

The Second Viewing:  

Yep, I dragged my kids around town to find seats to a show the next day.  I just could not process everything without another viewing.  After the first wave of information and plot twists, I was able to sit back with less tension and observe. 

The characters truly are great.  Han and Chewie steal the show with their team performance.  But Rey and Finn are close by and lead the plot along through many great character moments.  Both have to closely evaluate who they are and how they want to live their lives.  Do they want to spend their time waiting on hopes and dreams, do they want to run from the conflict and find a safe place to escape, or do they want to fight for the people and things that are ingrained in their hearts.  As Han Solo says, “The galaxy is counting on us!”  No pressure, right?    

“A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

There are also those “moments of awesome” that help to define the Star Wars movies.  My favorite part was definitely near the end when Rey called Anakin’s lightsaber to her after Kylo was unable to.  There is great power in this moment.  For one: Anakin’s life was not only darkness.  There was goodness and love.  The legacy he would have wanted when he returned to the Force would be one that Rey was following and not Kylo. And two: Kylo spent a few moments during the movie talking with the remains of Vader’s helmet and asked for guidance keeping the light away and for strength in the dark side that Vader found.  But Vader’s true power was ultimately in saving his son.  It was his last moment that even he acknowledged before his death to Luke, “You were right about me.  Tell your sister, you were right.”  Luke’s sacrifice helped Anakin find the good still buried within him.  And Rey’s sacrifices were a part of what called that saber to her. 

As the battle between Kylo and Rey builds, Rey finds a moment to reflect on the Force and this newfound inner strength that has become her guide.  She closes her eyes, focuses, then opens them again and totally kicks his butt!  Now, I was also a little concerned during this moment because, even though you hear Luke’s theme playing in the background, her face is contorted in anger.  I think perhaps a shadowy reflection running across the screen revealing Rey’s thoughts and illustrating what she’s fighting for would have helped to make certain her intentions were not along the lines of Anakin instead of Luke. 

I also found the differences in the lightsaber blade interesting.  Kylo’s was scratchy and jagged.  Whereas Anakin’s was smooth and straight.  Found the difference in construction interesting. 

“Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.  I sense much fear in you.”

I was given pause watching both Finn and Rey become experts in the art of sword fighting after picking up Anakin’s lightsaber.  However, I found Rey’s moment of fighting back against Kylo believable.  When Kylo was battling Finn, he was mostly toying with Finn.  When Rey took on the fight, she was mostly deflecting his strikes until she focused for a few moments and was able to beat him back.  She has experience with a saber-like weapon already via the staff she wielded on Jakku, so its not a completely foreign object for her to use.  In addition, Kylo was mentally unstable at that point also.  He had killed his father but still needed to smack his gun-shot wound in order to rally his inner pain and suffering for the fight.  He also watched an untrained woman call his grandfather’s lightsaber into her hands when he had failed just seconds earlier.  All his training was nothing compared to her strength of character.  And his anger towards her only seems to weaken him.  This is a subtle point that I think is easily missed: Kylo wants to find strength, but his anger has not been enough to gain him victory.  There is something more powerful than his anger, and he refuses to see it because it would mean admitting guilt to his actions.

Overall, there were a few other standout disappointments for me with this film:

1. John William’s score was less than impressive. 
It’s the same music as the past films, but that’s also the drawback.  I love Luke’s theme, Leia’s theme, etc., but there was nothing new and fresh for this film.  Watching “Empire Strikes Back,” the audience was introduced to “The Imperial March.”  In “Return of the Jedi,” the music that played when Luke stepped onto the gangplank over the sarlaac pit was amazing.  In “The Phantom Menace,” you had “Duel of Fates” which blew your mind.  We’re back once more for “Star Wars,” and the music did not feel as if it captured many moments.  There were a few times when it played up a scene or two, but overall, the music did little to enhance the overall film.  That surprised me. 

2. The “Dark Lord Gollum” (as I have dubbed him).
What. The. Hell was up with Andy Serkis’ character?  He looked like a “Lord of the Rings” character being projected into the wrong franchise.  I kept thinking orc every time he was on screen.  While none of the Imperial officers really stood out for me, Snoke was such a disappointment visually.  I really hope that look improves in subsequent films because I’m not buying the look at this point. 

3. Planets destroyed?
Was Corsucant destroyed?  There was not any time spent on mourning the loss of these planets.  It looked like 4 or 5 got blown?  The impact that this act carried was never really expressed in the film. 

“Patience you must have my young Padawan.”

I do also have a wish list for the next movies though:

1. I was sure the word at the tip of Rey’s tongue at the end of this movie as she stood facing Luke was “father?”  I was hanging on the edge of my seat waiting for the final bomb.  Perhaps this is a discovery for another time?  I just hope the “mother” will be called Mara Jade.   However, anyone who can call Anakin’s lightsaber over Leia’s son would most likely be Luke’s daughter, in addition to the reasons listed above regarding that moment. 
2. Leia needs to wield a lightsaber.  Please.  I just really want to see her use her abilities for more than sensing other people.  Maybe she’s a healer or something.  But let the Force flow through her in some way!
3. Get rid of whiny Hux and have Phasma take over the Imperial Fleet.  She is definitely an “action-oriented” officer who will get stuff done instead of waste time whining about what someone else did that she didn’t like.  

“Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.”

In the end, the movie was great.  I cannot rank it over the original movies; however, it definitely stands out as a great film in the franchise. 

As Yoda indicates in this above great quote (which I use often), “try” assumes a level of uncertainty in a task.  I believe J.J. Abrams is definitely “doing” great work.  I know there is more to come that’s going to be fantastic.  I think characters and relationships are going to make the storylines even better going forward. 

Link to a great article (referenced above):

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Faith, Trust, and... wait, no, HOLD the Pixie Dust, please!

I’ve have been working on this blog entry for weeks now.  November was a BIG month for my family.  We had many ups, we had a few downs, and there was very little breathing space in between.  Now my brain wants to do nothing but rest for the last part of the year. 

By all appearances, November seems like a rather calm month.  Sure, there’s Thanksgiving, but that’s near the end.  Otherwise, it’s always been more of a time to relax before the Christmas season overwhelms us all.  Christmas seems to rear its head sometime in early October.  So really, November seems to be one of those months that cruise gently along the waves between Halloween and Christmas.  Of course, I say that as someone who has not hosted Thanksgiving.  I tried once.  We do not speak of it… and cooking is not my forte. 

This year, November brought with it expected and unexpected challenges.   The expected: I signed up to do the NaNoWriMo challenge… and I did it!  It’s nice when someone other than yourself proclaims (about yourself) “I’m a winner!" Outside affirmation is nice! 

I was trying to accomplish NaNo goals while caught within a flurry of kid rehearsals and performances for piano and school plays, so carving out writing time was like running the mile some days.  Freaking. Impossible.  I had ideas that would pop into my head randomly, so sometimes in the middle of church or work or at a rehearsal I’d have to grab a pen and paper to write down a spark of “genius.”  I also had the good fortune of participating in a local author event at our local library!  That was definitely a highlight for my author personality!  

But the unexpected came before the month had reached its mid-point.  The second week in November we learned my mom would have to undergo surgery.  For a year, she had been having pain in her head and neck region.  The doctors had chalked it up to arthritis.  However, a PET scan finally revealed a brain tumor which would need to be removed surgically.  Talk about shocking, scary news.  My parents have always been healthy people, so this was the first time I’ve truly had to consider... well… the possibilities of their mortality.  It makes my stomach sick just to type the word!

For me, my parents were my rocks growing up.  I was never afraid to be who I was around them.  I could wear Spock ears or write stories for my Star Trek writing club all day, and I always felt accepted and loved.  If Harry Potter had been around then, I would have run around the yard with a wand and wizard cape casting spells upon my younger brother (“stupefy!”).  My parents were pillars of strength and models of love, a blanket of comfort when I needed it, and a constant positive force of encouragement in my life.  To have to face the reality that, well, they are in fact mortal human beings with a limited tenure on earth… just like all mortals out there including me… well, it didn’t seem possible. 

Then the day came: surgery day.  It was Black Friday.  (Yes, the day after Thanksgiving.  We all felt a lot of gratefulness that day!).  What can you do as you sit and wait for a 7-hour surgery to be completed? 

This, actually, was not my first time having a loved one undergo surgery.  When my daughter was born, they found a moderate to severe heart condition that could require surgery as she got older.  Five months later, she was having open heart surgery.  The most difficult moment in my life was handing my sleeping baby over to a nurse who would bring her to surgery.  It’s one of those moments that you know will change the course of your life, and you are powerless to do anything to alter the direction.  The only things you can hold onto are trust and faith.  Trust in the doctors who are caring for family.  Faith, be-it in God or karma or something greater than yourself, that no matter what happens you are not alone and you will get through this trial.  

Faith and Trust... makes you wish for a little Pixie Dust, right?  That's the saying to make one fly to a land where childhood and innocence is forever.
Actually, Disney intervening in life is scarier than you may think!  A friend and I were recently talking about “The Good Dinosaur.”  If you have not seen it, let me warn you know that there are some tear-jerking moments, and there are *spoilers to follow.*  It seems like most Disney & Pixar movies now surround a main character who loses/has lost/is missing a parent.  “TGD” was no exception.  Other examples include “Toy Story,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Lion King,” “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Bambi,” “Tarzan,” “The Jungle Book,” “Finding Nemo,” “Frozen,” “Big Hero 6,” on and on!  Why is this??? “Inside Out” seems to be an exception to the general rule of losing a family member.  “Brave” is close, but the threat of losing mom is prevalent throughout the movie.  Thinking about this made me even more concerned about my mom’s surgery.  These moments of loss have permeated children’s entertainment!  After watching “The Good Dinosaur,” I could not help but long to see for a fun, goofy, lighthearted film.  Where’s “Minions” when you need it?  This is not what I want to watch right now!  **Spoilers over**
As I met my dad at in the waiting room on Black Friday, I think at that point both of us had cast our cares up to God.  We trusted Him with our precious family member.  We talked, shared donuts, watched a couple helicopter landings on the roof across from our waiting room, and just spent time in each other’s company.  Soon enough, my brother and his wife (my sister from another mister!) joined us.  We sat and talked. 

I found the most comforting thing outside of being with family was doing the things my mom encouraged.  That included continuing my writing.  Envisioning myself in her position, I would not want my family sitting around worried all day for something that was out of their control.  The anticipation for the end of the surgery was tremendously overwhelming.  While getting some writing done was my goal for the morning, I was surprised to find that when I charged up my laptop to type, the words seemed to pour out. 

It’s clear that my mind needed the release.  It needed a new focus to get through a situation where I was powerless to do anything but pray (which is a big thing too, I understand, but it’s not something I can do for 7 hours).  I also wrote when my daughter was undergoing heart surgery: I worked on some children’s books I had been developing. 

Writing is a joy and a privilege in my life, but it’s also a comfort.  It’s a way to really dive into one’s feelings and pour out your heart.  When I was in college, my art form was dance.  When I was upset or hurting, I found that releasing my feelings through movement was extremely beneficial.  Now it’s writing, and I know it’s a gift from my parents.  It’s something that I can always find strength and comfort in when they’re not around.  And it’s a means to connect with them when they are far from me.  It’s a way to express my feelings in an environment I control.  My story outcomes will not change what happens in my life, but it will help in times when emotions swell up and threaten to drown me. 

I’m happy to say that my mother’s tumor was benign.  She is now home and recovering. Praise! 

I hope when life throws such challenges my way, I will face them with the courage that my mother showed.  Days and weeks will move on by, and these moments will collect dust as time passes by, but perhaps I will find this example of strength and courage emerge in a future writing project.  I am truly inspired by the family I was born into, and I hope that my writing, and my life, will always reflect that.  

I know that throughout my life, I will need to continue to work on keeping up my faith and trust.  But I no longer need the pixie dust.  My heart is soaring with joy already.  I may love a good Disney/Pixar movie every now and then, but I've come to realize that I certainly do not want my life to BE a Disney/Pixar movie.  Unless its Star Wars... that'd work. Just call me Princess Leia and get me my lightsaber.  You know the Force is strong in my family, right?  

“All of our lives were a story; their magic came in their retelling. Words could give life everlasting rebirth.

I would accept this challenge. I would use my breath to give life.”
- The Forgotten: Aten’s Last Queen