Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Burning the Old Yule Log

Have you ever tried that video or Christmas on-demand roaring fire? It's not quite the same is it? There are just certain things about this time of year that become important and traditional for many households.  For us, it is slightly more than playing a video of a burning log.

I must admit, Christmas is the one holiday I have looked forward to since I was a child.  Over the years, we have added to the decorations and the lights both inside and out.  We have a village based on Bedford Falls from It's a Wonderful Life and another based on Bethlehem.  We have an animated carousel or two and two trees. One is the more traditional tree, and the other we call the SciFi tree. It is filled with mostly Star Trek ornaments and a few other from pop culture movies and tv shows.  We have brass bells that play out Christmas tunes.  In short we are serious Christmas decorators.

As many of you know, we also decorate the outside of the house with animated scenes, laser lights, and even a laser light show. We have moving lights and the roofs and porches are outlined in lights.  There are lights and snowflakes and over-sized ornaments and even a 10-foot tall blow-up snowman.  One of our friends who live a couple blocks away says the brightness keeps her awake at night.

We spend a couple of weeks decorating and then there are the Christmas movies and cartoons to watch.  There are baked goods to make.  Open houses to attend and one of our own to prepare for.  Traditions like fudge and popcorn balls and sugar cookies and divinity must be made and placed into tins and boxes along with other Christmas goodies so we can eat too much and share these treats with friends and family.

There are presents to buy and movies to see. It is a time of many things but despite all these things, it is more to us than buying and lights and parties.  We do these things because we can.  It makes us happy.  I am not particularly wealthy, but I am incredibly blessed.  You see, Christmas is more than all these things. It is a feeling that fill us to the soul.  I know there are some who have a hard time with the holidays.   I know horrific events happen, but there are also wonderful things. When bad things happen, the community pulls together and wants to help.  We are so much more that the fictitious war on Christmas.  We are so much more than what color our Starbuck's cup is.  We are filled with the spirit of the holidays. And it is holidays, not just one holiday.  It is Hanukkah and Christmas and Kwanzaa and Yule and  Ramadan and even St. Lucia day.

It is a season of wonder and spirit.  Yes, bad things happen. Despite that and despite the Scrooges and Grinches who get on social media to announce that there is only "Merry Christmas" or attack those who believe in the miracle, it is still a wonder-filled time.  I love all my decorations and food and the friends and family I spend time with, but I believe that without all that, Christmas time will still fill me with that special feeling. The feeling I look forward with child-like glee to every year.  I hope you do too.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you and yours.  May the New Year fill your life with blessings galore.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The True Return of the Jedi

In 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope (or Star Wars as those who were alive before the prequels called it) was released.  It captured something that is an almost indescribable feeling. I was 20 when the first movie came out, and I ended up seeing it in theaters several times.

Then Lucas decided to do the prequels which were to tell the story of the rise of the Empire and Darth Vader.  He also decided to  tinker with the original trilogy using technology that did not exist when they were originally made.  He discovered two things. First, fans really didn't care if Han shot first.  In fact, they kind of liked the fact that he did. Second the original movies had never been about the special effects.  It was that feeling.

Unfortunately, the three prequels didn't really demonstrate that understanding.  They became the FX versions of Star Wars with cartoon cut-out characters, awkward love scenes, and bad dialog.  I read one article that announced that the prequels were not really that bad and had received a bad rap because the expectation did not meet the reality.  I thought then as I do now, "No, they really were that bad." I stood in line to see the re-release of the original three and for Episode I.  After I saw Phantom Menace, I did not stand in line to see any of the prequels.

And so, Disney bought the franchise from Lucas and gave the movies which were to sequel the original three to the guidance of a director recommended by Steven Spielberg:  J.J. Abrams. Abrams was given a herculean task.  His success as a remake artist, a title he does not particularly like, was not without his detractors.  His reboot of Star Trek was critically disliked for his use of lens flares and that he basically reset the entire Star Trek pantheon.  I for one like the movie and the franchise reboot. I was not enamored with the lens flare.  So, Abrams who had been looking to make something not-a-reboot or sequel took on Star Wars. He did so because he loved the series, Spielberg recommended him, and they paid him a boatload of money.

Star Wars VII became a work of love for the next three years.  Two things you need to know: all the fan theories you've read are mostly wrong and "The Feeling," yes that FEELING, is back.  If ever there was a movie that could fail because the hype of expectation did not meet reality, The Force Awakens is it.  It does not fail.

I offer no spoilers in my review. I am going to tell you one thing that makes not a bit of difference: my favorite cameo in the movie.  In the movie, the Jedi mind-trick is used.  No surprise there.  When you see this scene, know that the guy in the storm trooper costume is Daniel Craig - that's right James Bond  is in the movie.

When the final release poster came out there was a noticeable absence, the character of Luke Skywalker is not on the poster.  Fan theories ran rampant.  What we didn't know was that the poster matched the movie.  It is the idea that the movie, set 30 years after Return of the Jedi, is a quest movie of sorts. Our heroes, too, are looking for Luke.  No this is not a spoiler.  It is the premise.

Force Awakens blends the old cast and the new in a clear definable way. We are glad to see the original cast as long lost friends and excited to see things like the Millennium Falcon and Luke's blue lightsaber (not a spoiler - it appears in the movie trailers) which is not explained as to how it was recovered from Luke's amputated hand in the Cloud City. The action sequences are perfect and a tribute the battles of the original three.

Just as interesting are the new generation of cast members.  There is the rover and junk collector, Rey played by Daisy Ridley. There is the rebel pilot, Poe Dameron who is played by Oscar Isaac. There is Finn a storm trooper deserter played by John Boyega.  Finally, there is our new bad guy, Kylo Ren played by Adam Driver.  Their scenes sparkle on the screen.  The chemistry between Boyega and Ridley on screen is good and strong.  It is the new ones that actually make this newest addition work so well.  Even the new mechanical, the robot BB-8, has personality plus.

The Force Awaken captures that FEELING what was missed in the FX fest that was the prequels.  Is it a perfect movie? No. There are plenty of scenes that seem lifted from the original story of A New Hope. The plot tends to parallel the original story, but as I said, it is a work of tribute and love that fanboy, J.J. Abrams, wanted to make.  It works.  I liked it and on a bright note, there are few if any lens flares.  I am more than willing to  go see it again in theaters, and that is something I have not done since Jedi.  I liked it in IMAX and 3-D.

The Jedi have indeed returned.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Fear is really the only thing to Fear.

I’ve been thinking about his whole refugees and terrorist thing.  Quite frankly given recent statements, I’m surprised that Trump hasn't tried to pander his fear by worrying that Isis terrorists will disguise themselves as Mexicans and sneak across the border as illegal immigrants.  It is about as reasonable as anything else this demagogue has stated.  Let’s be clear about this idea of building walls that will keep people out.

According to the U.S. Geological survey, the U.S. Mexican border is 1,933 miles. If, however, you think Isis is going to wait the average of 12 to 18 months for a fake refugee to become active, when they can sneak across a border illegally, you must not actually be thinking it through.  The Mexican border is nothing compared the U.S. – Canadian border which is 3,987 miles and 1,538 miles at the Canadian-Alaska border.  So that’s basically 7,458 miles of border. We also have 12,380 miles of coast line in case you’re worried about boats landing. Stopping a handful of refugees is not really much of an impediment. So if you’re living in fear of foreign terrorists, perhaps you should stop and think about the homegrown varieties that are already here.

According to a New York Times article from June, since September 11, 2001 the majority of terrorist attacks have been from non-Muslim extremist groups. There were at that time 19 extremist, non-Muslim attacks resulting in 49 deaths compared to the 26 deaths by self-proclaimed jihadists.  If we add the three who died at the attack in Colorado Springs that brings the total to 51 of non-Muslim attacks.  The 14 deaths in California bring the jihadists to 40.  I’ll just leave this here: 32,000 people die each year from guns according to Forbes magazine, and according to the CDC, 10,076 people died in alcohol-related car accidents in 2013, alone.  Roughly 30 people die in drunk-driving accidents every 51 minutes. 
Following the terrorist attack in Paris, France renewed its vow to take in 30,000 refugees, who are, contrary to what some presidential candidates announced, women and children.  Women make up 50.5 per cent of the refugees.  Of the refugees, 38.5 percent are under the age of 12. These 30,000 refugees are a 4.6165 percent addition to France's population of  64, 982,894.

The number of refugees the U.S. committed to take was 10,000 when all this came up. Only 1500 have been let in before this announcement.  Let’s put that into perspective.  According to the U.S. Government census clock, there are 322 million people in the US.  So, 10 thousand is .0000310559 of the current population.  In other words, the addition of these people from a population is statistically zero. By the way, despite what governors have announced about taking or not taking refugees is constitutionally not in the governor’s power since immigration and naturalization is a Federal issue.

But what if there is a terrorist or two with the refugees? Let me just put this here.  There are 42.1 million immigrants in the U.S. at this moment.  That doesn’t include tourists and I have no idea if the number includes those who are here illegally. If you still feel that those horrible terrorist are going to get you, in the US the odds of you being in a terrorist attack both foreign and domestic is 1 in 20 million.  In fact, you have a better chance of dying from lightning or a fireworks discharge than being involved in a terrorist attack.

So if you think Isis, which is wealthy as far as terrorist organizations go, cannot afford a plane ticket and a fake passport or two,  will instead wait for the bureaucracy of the U.S. to lurch into action, as we learned sadly in California that they don’t need refugees to spread terrorist acts.  It is truly appalling that we now have a presidential contender advocating that we stop all Muslims from any country coming for any reason to the US.  It is sad to think that he believes we should identify all those now living here.  It saddens me because it reminds us that following the internment of Americans of Japanese descent after December 7 in World War II, that we have a would-be leader who would do the same.  He and his followers seem to have learned nothing from that horrifying event in our history. Advocating the registration and blocking of all Muslims is also reminiscent of the registering of  Jews by Fascist Germany in the 1930's. By the way, it is also true that before WWII we rejected refugee Jews from Germany for the same reasons and one of those Jews was Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank.  We truly do forget history’s lessons if we listen to the fear mongers.

This is not who we are or hopefully it is not who we have become. Once we were the sleeping giant, but all the fear mongering I've seen has this giant playing right into the the hands of the Terrorists.  I would remind you why they are called terrorist and not warriors. They thrive on fear...terror. Maybe, just maybe, we fear the wrong things.  If we are not going to protect the weak and down-trodden, then perhaps we should take down that statue on Liberty Island and send it back to the folks who gave her to us, France. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Kenneth Branagh Tells The Winter's Tale

William Shakespeare's  The Winter's Tale is something of a problem play.  It is, in fact, part of a group of four plays actually called the Problem Plays: The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Tempest.  They also are part of the Romances, the magic plays, the tragic comedies, the last plays in Shakespear's writing career.

The Winter's Tale is a problem because it has a collapsed plotline that frequently relies on unmotivated reactions, bizarre plot twists, and a host of some of the more memorable side characters and  "clowns" in Shakespeare.  For in Shakespeare, be he the keeper of the gates of Macbeth's castle, Lear's jester, or the conman thief Autolycus in Tale, the "fools" or "clowns" tell the truth.

So what follows here is not so much review as it is a simple summary of what makes The Winter's Tale a problem play for production.

The plot of Winter's Tale is complex and more than a bit unbelievable.  King Leontes of Sicilia becomes suddenly convinced and for no apparent reason other than jealous rage and madness that his very pregnant wife, Hermione, is having an affair with his best and boyhood friend, Polixenes who is king of Bohemia. The result is terrifying.  In his madness, Leontes (Kenneth Branagh) orders the imprisonment of his wife and the assassination of Polixenes.  Polixines, warned by a noble advisor Camillo, flees back to his own kingdom. Hermione gives birth to a daughter which Leontes believes is not his and orders to be abandoned in a distant land. Because of all this, Leontes only son, Mamillius, dies of grief and upon learning of her daughter's ordered death and the sudden death of her son, the innocent Hermione also dies, grief-stricken.  The Oracle of Apollo sends word that Hermione is innocent and Leontes a jealous tyrant who has wrongly accused his wife and friend and ordered the death of his own innocent daughter. Leontes realizes with horror what he is done. He is berated and held to his grim acts by Hermione's friend and the voice of reason, Paulina (Judi Dench).

Meanwhile, the noble lord given the grim task of disposing of the baby and Paulina's husband, Antigonus arrives in Bohemia to abandon the baby in her supposed father's country. As he leaves the baby in the forest we are given one of, if not the most famous, stage direction in all Shak
espeare: "Exit, pursued by bear." Antigonus, we are later told, has been killed and eaten by the bear.  The ship that brought him to Bohemia is destroyed in a storm so no one is left to tell the tale of the baby who is found by a foolish Shepherd and his son, Clown. They name the baby, Perdita.

Time passes.  Perdita grows into a great beauty and Shepherd becomes prosperous.  Perdita is being secretly wooed by Florizel, the prince of Bohemia and son of Polixenes once BFF of Leontes. Polixenes hears of this, and he and Camillo go to see this maiden his son is so infatuated with.  When Florizel fails to ask dad for permission to marry Perdita, Polixenes flies into an unreasonable rage and the young lovers flee, on Camillo's advice, to the land of the repentant King Leontes.  We also meet the petty thief, Autolycus.  His attempt to con more and more money from the nobles, Shepherd and Clown cause Shepherd and Clown to follow Perdita to Sicilia. They bring all the things they found when she was a baby to prove Polixenes they had nothing to do with the love between Florizel and Perdita.

Polixenes, on the advice of Camillo, follows his son to Sicilia.  Leontes, now a repentant and saddened ruler, sits in his lonely kingdom with his sole advisor, Paulina who has prevented him from remarrying without her permission, despite the fact the kingdom has no heir.  Eventually in a very plot collapsed scene, it is revealed how Leontes discovers his long lost daughter, is reunited with his friend and Florizel is now okay to marry Perdita because now she is a princess.  If all this is not odd enough, we now have the most unbelievable scene, even more unbelievable than a guy being eaten by a bear while his ship is destroyed.

Paulina leads Leontes to see a statue of Hermione she has had made.  In reality, Hermione, despite having been seen and buried by her husband, was not dead and pretends to be the statue.  She "comes to life" and Leontes, his queen, and his daughter are all reunited and all is forgiven. We are just left with poor dead Mamillius.

Now you know why this is a problem play.  It is largely symbolic in nature with Perdita becoming the symbol of forgiveness, renewal and redemption. It is both dark in nature but also frequently humorous.  As a Romance, it ends almost happily.

The Branagh production is, for the most part, fun and energetic. It is like most anything Branagh puts his hand to, visually stunning.  The acting is solid and Branagh turns in his usual and slightly over-the-top performance.  It is Dame Judi Dench who steals the show.  While Branagh states at the beginning introduction that he has always sought to make Shakespeare's dialogue remain poetic but sound natural and conversational, it is Dench who actually makes it happen.  She is a one of a kind actor.  Her presence leaps off the stage and her delivery is so tight and honest that we forget the problem of this Problem Play.  I am glad I got to see it, if for no other reason, to see a broadcast of a live show and the incredible Judi Dench on stage.