Tuesday, December 22, 2015


I first came to the Star Wars universe in reverse order.  When the original film was released in 1977, for some reason I don't remember, my curiosity was not piqued enough to go see it.  I liked science fiction, and still do, so that was not the reason.  Even with all of the hype and hub-bub that surrounded it, and just how popular it was becoming, I do not recall why I wasn't moved (by the Force?) to see it.

Fast forward to 1980 and the release of The Empire Strikes Back, and my then-girlfriend at the time, who was a huge fan, asked me to go see it with her.  My first thought was that, since I had not seen the original, I might be a little lost; I went, anyway.  I liked it, but was not overwhelmed by it ... along the lines of not spectacular, not terrible.  It was the darkest of the original trilogy.

When the original Star Wars was re-released in theaters in 1981, now named Episode IV: A New Hope, I went to see it with her.  I loved it!  I was hooked.  After standing in l-o-n-g lines with hundreds of other fans, I saw the final installment of the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi, in 1983 -- anyone remember the original title was supposed to be Revenge of the Jedi? -- my journey in the world of Star Wars was complete.

Or so I thought.

It was revealed back during the original trilogy's release -- I forget during which film specifically -- that George Lucas had originally written a saga with nine episodes in it.  A tri-trilogy, if you will.  In the years following Jedi, Lucas said that he wished he could have done more in terms of visual effects than he did with the original trilogy.  Near the end of the twentieth century, that technology was available, and Lucas used it, including filming digitally, for the next trilogy. 

The Phantom Menace
opened in 1999 to much fanfare and a fandom eager for more.  Sadly, it would be the beginning of a downward spiral for the franchise, not to mention "special edition" releases of the original trilogy that included visual improvements that weren't really improvements.  Menace, along with its two follow-ups, Attack of the Clones in 2002 and Revenge of the Sith in 2005, were, on many levels, disappointments. 

First and foremost was Lucas' heavy-handed attention to show off how much visual effects had improved in the sixteen years since Return of the Jedi.  Many scenes were visually stunning, but their being given front-and-center status muddled the world of Star Wars fans had come to know and love.  To that extent, and leading into the trilogy's second fault, casting, was the inclusion of Jar Jar Binks, a Gungan from the planet of Naboo.  The character was all CGI (computer-generated imagery) and was nothing short of annoying.  Lucas supposedly based the Jar Jar on the Disney character Goofy -- foreshadowing, perhaps? -- and it was apparent that the character was to be the hook for a new generation of children, much like the Ewoks in Jedi were previously.  Although the Ewoks had a far more integral role in the saga than Jar Jar did.  In response to the backlash, the character was reduced to a much more secondary role in Attack of the Clones, eventually having just one line of dialogue in Revenge of the Sith.

Bye bye, Jar Jar!

The issue of casting was a huge problem with the second trilogy.  Some people had a problem with Samuel L. Jackson being cast as Mace Windu, a Jedi Master and member of the Republic's High Council.  Likely, in part, due to his playing such tough (and sometimes foul-mouthed) characters.  (He had, after all, done Pulp Fiction five years earlier.)  Some had a problem with his having a purple-colored lightsaber, which Jackson had asked for.  Whatever.  My problem was with the two lead characters Anakin Skywalker and Princess Amidala, played by Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, respectively. 

Natalie Portman was only sixteen at the time of filming of The Phantom Menace, so her flatness in the role of Amidala could be chalked up to inexperience.  Her performances in The Professional when she was thirteen and in Beautiful Girls when she was around fifteen dispel that argument.  Even at those young ages, she could play characters with depth.  Many have argued that George Lucas' direction was responsible for her performance.  If so, maybe, only maybe, that same argument could be made about Hayden Christensen's performance, but I doubt it.  In my opinion, he was simply just not good at all.  Their "romance", which was a key role in the formation of Anakin becoming Darth Vader, was non-existent, and there was zero on-screen chemistry between Portman and Christensen.

By the time the final installment of the trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, which was my favorite of the second three, had arrived in 2005, the franchise had increased from three films to six films, but it left fans with a sour taste in their mouth.  Many who knew Lucas had written three trilogies wondered, perhaps half-heartedly at the time, if that final trilogy would get made ... or, after the Menace/Clones/Sith trilogy, if they really wanted it to get made.

Disney bought Lucasfilm, Ltd., for more than four billion dollars in the Fall of 2012.  Talk almost immediately began about bringing the final trilogy to the big screen.  Filming began in mid-2014, and just this past weekend, The Force Awakens, the saga's seventh installment was released to a fandom that was excited, but cautious.  Would director J.J. Abrams [(television): Felicity, Alias, Lost, Fringe; (films): Mission: Impossible films, Cloverfield, Star Trek reboot, Super 8) fall into the Lucas technological trap?  Would the film be "Disneyfied"?  Would it remain true to the world of Star Wars?

Having seen it, here are my answers: No, technology, while important to the film does not overshadow it.  No, it was not Disneyfied.  Okay, maybe the BB-8 droid could be evidence that it was, but the same could have been said about R2-D2, which originally had no Disney involvement; my answer remains no.  Yes, it most certainly did remain true to the world of Star Wars! 

Some have argued The Force Awakens is simply a rehashing of the original 1977 Star Wars film.  J.J. Abrams is known to be a huge fan of the Star Wars films and Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, also co-wrote Awakens.  So, it is possible it could be seen as simply a rehashing.  My views is that it's part homage to the original trilogy, yes, but also a well-executed moving forward of the saga with characters from the past (i.e. Han, Leia, Luke, R2-D2, C-3PO) being simply part of the telling of the story, not inserted cameos for mere effect. 

I think the Disneyfying effect is in that, in addition to Episodes VIII and IX, there will be two Star Wars spin-off films.  Rogue One, set to be released next year, and a Han Solo-centric film.  Will they do well?  That remains to be seen.  Will it be oversaturation?  Possibly.  Time will tell.  (Disney will likely continue past Episode IX to make more spin-offs.)

I did not flat-out hate the second the second trilogy -- Revenge of the Sith was a vast improvement -- as much as I was really disappointed.  The awe and wonder that the original trilogy invoked in me was simply not there with the second trilogy.  I love special effects, but not that much.  The enjoyment of watching characters I truly cared about was absent in the second go-round.  I was cautiously optimistic about a new trilogy.

I was not disappointed!  I really enjoyed this latest installment!  The writing was spot on!  The acting was spot on!  I really cared about the characters, both old and new!  The visual effects were stunning, but not overbearing!  John Williams' score was, as always, wonderful!  (It looks as though he'll be scoring all nine Star Wars films!)  Most importantly, it gave me the feeling I felt watching the original trilogy.  Director and producer J.J. Abrams and producers Kathleen Kennedy and Bryan Burk have done a wonderful job bringing back the world of Star Wars in such an amazing way!  Well done!  (Yes, I used a lot of exclamation points because I am thrilled.)

The Force has, indeed, awakened!


Friday, December 4, 2015

Term of the Day: PERPETUAL WAR

Just days ago, President Obama and The Pentagon announced more troops would be sent to Iraq and Syria to help battle ISIS (the "Islamic State").  It has been stated that it will be just to northern Syria, but it has also been reported that some troops will be going to Iraq as well.  It was said to be around fifty troops, and supposedly the initial number will be about two dozen.  White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the troops will reserve the right to defend themselves if attacked -- I think that's a no-brainer -- but they will not be there to intentionally engage in combat actions.  Additionally, the troops will be made up mainly of advisers.  What if those advisers go into any areas that are "hot" (active fighting areas)?  Wouldn't defending themselves have to involve fighting?  (Another no-brainer.)  Well, where will these advisers go while there?

They will be Special Ops forces, which will include troops capable of engaging military forces on the ground.  Additional Special Ops forces will be available for backup.

American bombing of ISIS targets in Syria has been going on for over a year with no success in ending or containing ISIS ... which President Obama said they had done just prior to the terrorist attacks in Paris weeks ago.  The U.S. strategy regarding ISIS has failed.  Now, an increase in boots on the ground and, of course, combat is the "solution". 

How did the problem come about?

The following videos will supply you with the answers.  The first is from the web series Truth in Media, featuring Ben Swann reporting on the origin of ISIS.

The second video is the CNN special report Blindsided: How ISIS Shook the World, hosted by Fareed Zakaria.

If the video doesn't play, click here.

We have become quite adept at perpetual war, rather than bringing about real, lasting peace.  We have become not the peacekeepers of the world, but the warkeepers of this nation.  Perhaps it's no surprise to you, or perhaps it is, but there is money to be made in war, plenty of money.  We were warned about that happening.  Almost fifty-five years ago, just days before the swearing in of John F. Kennedy as his predecessor, outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the following televised farewell address to the nation:

Sadly, we have not heeded that warning.  With U.S. military advisers in what was then French Indochina for more than a decade prior to Eisenhower's farewell address, U.S. military forces in the region tripled in 1961 and tripled again in 1962.  With the far-too-late revealed non-existent Gulf of Tonkin incident, and its resulting resolution, in 1964, which allowed the President to increase troops even further, our involvement in the Vietnam War began.

Our unnecessary involvement in Vietnam was a result of what is called mission creep, the increase of military presence on the way to military conflict, whether that conflict is a "skirmish" or an all-out war.  We continue to not heed that warning. 

While keeping his campaign promise to get troops out of Iraq, President Obama brought the last troops home about four years ago -- December 18, 2011.  Just two-and-a-half years later, June of last year, the President announced the sending of 300 military advisers back to Iraq, adding more troops ("advisers") every few months or so.  The number of troops in Iraq now stands at over 3,500. 

In addition, do not forget the following fact: The U.S. has spent billions of dollars in the "training" of troops in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.  As noted in the first two videos, that money was not well-spent ... but it was spent, nonetheless!  Now, we are adding fifty or so new "advisers" to Syria (and perhaps Iraq as well).

This is mission creep, twenty-first century style.  Nothing more, nothing less.  As the past more-than-half-century has ticked by, Eisenhower's warning has been ignored by administration after administration, by one Congress after another.  When will this stop?  When our members of Congress ceases the arming of our supposed "enemies of our enemies" all over the world and forego profiting from conflict and death.

The sad state of this country is that the majority of its citizens want perpetual peace, while its leaders remain invested in perpetual war.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Words of the Day: RHETORIC & REASON

Another mass shooting occurred here in the United States yesterday.  It took place at the Inland Regional Center, an agency that helps mentally challenged and special needs people, in San Bernardino, California, resulting in fourteen dead and seventeen injured.  Here's how one report on the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) covered the story:

Just another day in the United States of America.  How saddening, maddeningly, frustratingly true.

Mass shootings are not just becoming more prevalent; they are becoming routine.  When something terrible becomes routine, not only is the time to do something present, but the reason is present as well.  And yet, what we here in the U.S. get is rhetoric, not reason.  Today's cover of The New York Daily Post newspaper is a provocative one.

I would suspect that right-wingers and Christian fundamentalists find this as an attack on God/religion/faith, etc.  In fact, it is nothing of the kind.  The word "prayers" is highlighted in the boxes as a wake-up call, not an attack on God, or religion, or faith.  While politicians of their thoughts and prayers for the victims, they do nothing to be reasonable and change things for the better.  All the while, the number of victims of mass shootings continues to climb.  This year alone, just from January 1st to December 2nd, there have been 355 mass shootings in this country.  355!  More mass shootings than number of days in this year that have passed.  This shooting in San Bernardino, California, is the largest mass shootings since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting three years ago, which resulted in nearly thirty deaths.

As the Daily News' cover illuminates, prayers do not change laws and implement them; God does not change laws and implement them ... members of Congress do.  While it is reasonable, and well past time, to take action, what we get is rhetoric.  We get people screaming about their guns being taken away from them.  We get gun legislation, whenever it comes up, that repeatedly goes nowhere.  We gun certain bans left to expire.  Are all, or at least the vast majority, of Congress so heartless as to not care one bit about human life at all?  I doubt it, but I do, however, have a theory why, legislatively, things have been the way they are:

Too many politicians in bed with the National Rifle Association (NRA), taking contributions from it, and not wanting to bite a hand that feeds them.

The NRA has been beating the war drums of Watch out!  They're coming for your guns! for years.  The NRA's response to gun violence in this country has become to increase the number of guns in America.  When they contribute to politicians, politicians beat the same drums and call for the same increase in weaponry.  Why not?  They're not going to take the NRA's money and not do its bidding ... and the NRA will not give them any money if they refuse.

Please read the following:
-- A 2012 report from BusinessInsider.com that shows who gets the most money from the NRA, including a breakdown of contributions in general terms of overall members of Congress. 

-- A report from OpenSecrets.org that lists the biggest recipients of NRA dollars for last year's election cycle, including names of committees and individuals in Congress.

-- A report from NYDailyNews.com from October regarding contributions and election results, highlighting two examples of former Georgia Representative John Barrow and current West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.  It also lists the NRA's annual contribution amounts from 1990-2014.

-- A 2013 article from Care2.com, a social networking site that promotes online petitions and taking social action, that shows the result of a study done by the British newspaper The Guardian about the percentage of U.S. Senators who stopped gun control legislation in Congress and were paid by the NRA.  The percentage may just astound you.

After being formed in the late nineteenth century, the NRA was involved in the passage of the National Firearms Act in 1934, the first piece of gun legislation in the United States.  In fact, during the congressional hearings reading the Act, then-NRA president Karl Frederick made the following statements during his testimony:
                     "I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons."

                                                         "I seldom carry one."
                          "I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns."

                        "I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses."

My, how times have changed!

All the way until the mid-1970's, the Association's focus was sportsmen.  It was at that time, the Association's legislative lobbying body, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) was formed, and was later instrumental in lobbying Congress to get the Firearm Owners Protection Act passed in 1986.  Its work continued in the area of reducing federal powers regarding firearms.  Famed actor Charlton Heston, who had, years earlier, supported gun legislation, served as NRA president from 1998-2003, bringing wider attention to the organization and its goals.

Wayne LaPierre has served as the NRA's Executive Vice-President since 1991, a capacity in which he continues to serve, and has been its most noted spokesperson in recent years.  He has functioned as a clarion bell for the latest NRA strategy: We need more and more and more guns!  In its nearly 145-year history, the NRA has gone from its initial purpose of  "[promoting and encouraging] rifle shooting on a scientific basis" to paying off members of Congress to do nothing to help to greatly reduce mass shootings.  We are left with rhetoric supporting the latter goal of the NRA.  Reason begs for something substantial to be done to counter it.

How times have changed, indeed.