Tuesday, December 29, 2015

In A Galaxy Far, Far Away

And they have finally improved hologram technology! It’s been over 10 years since the last Star Wars film was released in theaters, and I can say that J.J. Abrams has redeemed himself for the drivel that the Star Trek reboots are – for now at least.


I couldn’t remember the last time I went to see a movie in the theater, until I was kindly reminded that it was Saving Mr. Banks, a couple of years ago. Before that, it very probably well was Revenge of the Sith. I was surprised today about the amount of anticipation I had felt today leading up to movie time. Perhaps part of it was the fact that I was lucky enough to get a showing this week with two seats next to each other. Buying the tickets on line almost gave me flashbacks to those glory days in the 90’s of standing in line waiting for the local Ticket Master location to open so I could grab good seats to whatever upcoming Rock concert was scheduled in Philly. It took a few tries, but I finally got the late afternoon show, but had to settle on front row seats. Not that it mattered that much – it’s pretty much how it ended up with each of the other movies the first time we saw them.

So with that in mind, Erin and I sat down in our seats just shy of 30 minutes before the “show time” (which of course means when the usual movie previews begin before the movie you’re actually there to see). Naturally, there’s the previews preview time now, so it was with some annoyance I tried to occupy myself with my phone until the lights dimmed, hoping that time would move a bit quicker (not that it hasn’t already moved fast enough at this point – but that’s for my next blog entry). Then after that first eternity, the quiet whir of the screen curtains opening wider and … let the previews begin. Previews of movies that ultimately I have no interest in seeing, save for one. At this point, I don’t even remember what the other movies were except for the Warcraft movie, and I never even played the game, with the exception of World of Warcraft on rare occasion over the last couple of months. Based on the previews, it looks like it might be the first actually decent movie based on a video game. But again, that’s what previews are for – unless it’s Star Trek Beyond – now that’s one preview that pretty much encapsulates all that is wrong for the franchise as it stands now.

Anyway, so on they went for what seemed like an even longer period of time - although it really wasn’t that long by my reckoning as I checked the time after the end credits completed their roll. But such was the nature of my anticipation, touched with a bit of anxiety. As I mentioned last in my last entry, I could no longer prevent my curiosity from getting the better of me (even so far as tracking down a bootleg video of the genuine opening scroll), and went into the theater with full knowledge of the plot that was about to unfold. Part of it, I think was because of who took over the reins of the franchise – Disney and Abrams, and the result, at least of the latter’s influence on my other favorite space opera series. I needed to know if it would actually be worth my time and anticipation to see.

So, finally after that second eternity of waiting, the LucasArts logo materialized on screen, then that simple phrase in blue lettering, and I was instantly transported back to being a kid again, the theater blasting with the all too familiar theme while those two words outlined in yellow peeled back into the starfield. And then the opening scroll. The journey through a new era and a new saga began. I haven't felt that way in a long, long time.

Like I said in the opening, Star Wars is truly back, and The Force Awakens is easily the best of the bunch after New Hope and Empire. Is it derivative, as seems to be the critical response of many? Absolutely, (even the imagery and setting of certain scenes seemed ripped right out of one of the previous outings) but then again, so was everything after Empire anyway. Heck, every James Bond movie is basically the same recycled plot for all 30 odd movies, so the fact that this is just another version of Episode I, IV, or VI isn’t that much of a big deal.
It wasn’t completely perfect – I did have a couple of head scratching moments, like that whole deal with R2 that seemed like a decidedly convenient plot hole. And that they decided to go with a new desert planet instead of Tatooine, but I am sure that that point can be explained by someone somewhere – even as a future plot point in one of the other episodes. What really makes the difference is that I was taken away to another place for a couple of hours and thoroughly engaged to the point where I forgot I was watching a movie (except for the proximity of the screen, but whatever). Unlike the Prequels which, from beginning to end, gave the feeling of unreal worlds (i.e. fake green screen concoctions), this movie felt real – even the scenes that had to be digital for obvious reasons. The future of a long ago past is in good hands.

And what about that pit in my stomach? It’s lessened, and while what happened wasn’t a shock in that I already expected it, there still is that sense of loss that it ultimately had to happen. Like I mentioned to my sister in the comments of the last blog post, anyone who is a fan of the previous movies (yes, even the Prequels), that the big shock isn’t really all that shocking. In every lightsaber battle in the previous six movies someone loses a limb, or is killed. In all but Empire one or more major characters get killed off. So the fact that someone important dies in this movie can’t really be a surprise. And in all reality, even death isn’t all that permanent in the Star Wars universe – as good ole Ben Kenobi shows us. What I really look forward to now is how the tale of the events leading up TFA are relayed to the fans. There’s still too much disconnect from Episode VI to VII that even the book Aftermath hasn’t filled. I think, perhaps that we will not see the last of all of our favorite characters for quite some time – even those who have, and may yet still, meet their demise.

For the first time in, oh about 35 years or so, I eagerly await what the next decade of film making will bring to us. May the Force be with us all.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Long Time Ago …

…Or so it seems. I was not quite 7 years of age when the world was changed forever by the release of a science-fiction film on May 25, 1977. A generation grew up with the phenomenon that was Star Wars permeating their lives – as much and more than Star Trek or Doctor Who. The former had exploration and transporters; the latter had a blue box shaped time machine and the perennial character who could change his appearance every now and again. Star Wars, though had lightsabers and epic space battles.

It was in the Star Wars universe, more than any other that my brother and I imagined ourselves fighting those epic battles. And then it faded as we grew older and Star Wars became a distant memory with only an occasional blurb now and then about the other untold six chapters of the saga. The only thing that fans had left were the VHS tapes and what eventually became known as the Expanded Universe – all the novels and comics that started coming out, telling the further adventures of all our favorite characters in the movies.

And then, in the mid-90’s, thanks in part to the EU, there were the whispers of the return of Star Wars to the big screen. There was indeed a New Hope of seeing more lightsabers and epic space battles. Star Wars was on the cusp of a comeback just as Star Trek was in its decline and Doctor Who was a decade gone (aside from the one-off attempt to kickstart it in America). Along came all the hoopla and excitement as it became more and more clear that a new trilogy was in the works. Then the Special Editions of the original movies were released.

It was a strange time then. We finally got to see scenes in the movies that had only been talked about up to that time, but there were changes – some minor, and some major, that just seemed perplexing. And of course, there was The One. It was The One that pretty much highlighted just how much it looked like George Lucas has lost sight of the vision that Star Wars had become to millions of people. The One where Greedo shot first. Of course there was also the Other One where Hayden Christensen miraculously appeared where Sebastian Shaw should have been. These were just hints though, at what was to come. The Prequel Trilogy had its moments – mostly the lightsaber and epic space battles, but the rest left many an embittered fan behind. Star Wars became a victim to what I call the “Jurassic Park Effect.”

In June of 1993, the movie adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel brought the term CGI (Computer Generated Image) to the forefront of movie going vocabulary. It was with Jurassic Park that CGI finally reach the point technologically that it could be used in lieu of practical effects in movies and television. It changed the entertainment industry forever. But of course, not all changes bring everything that is good. It soon harkened the time where special effects became more important than the actual telling of a story. Whereas the original Star War trilogy relied on the characters to bring the story to life, George fell victim to the JPE and allowed the special effects to tell the story instead of the people around which the events centered. The CGI became more important than the story, and thusly the story suffered because of it. But of course, that was only part of the reason.
Any writer will always have an outline of a story they are writing with a rough idea of how things unfold from start to finish. However, how that story unfolds along the way is often a fluid animal and many a writer finds how things occur in one chapter much different than their original vision had planned. In addition to the JPE, it seemed that George was trying to force the story into the vision he had, instead of letting it evolve as it needed to evolve. Of course, the limitations of time and presentation medium did not help matters, but in the end, the will of the creator caused his creation to suffer more than it should have.

So here we are, over a decade after the last Star Wars movie made its theatrical debut, and the hype, hoopla and excitement are even greater that what we saw in the months leading up to that fateful May day in 1999. There is some trepidation as the new owner of the franchise brought in J.J. Abrams to oversee production and direct the new episode. While he breathed life back into the Star Trek franchise with the two reboot movies, both left a bitter taste in the mouths of Trekkies who felt those movies betrayed the original vision and passion of that series. Personally, I think that using the alternate timeline/universe trope to be a lack of creativity on the part of writers in such aspects. In any event, I found it promising that JJ made it a point to highlight the fact that he was using practical effects over CGI as much as possible for the new movie. Of course, at this point, with the results of the advance releases already hitting the headlines, it appears that Star Wars may have gotten the revival, and treatment, it needed the most. I will still hold judgement until such a time that I can see the movie myself and see if the hype and the wait were worth the effort.

I have fallen to the Dark Side however, in the process of writing this blog. By nature, I am one of those people who will skip ahead and read bits and pieces of a book ahead of the chapter I am currently on to see what happens, especially if it is a book I particularly enjoy. I think it’s more of a desire to ensure I am not going to end up reading something that ticks me off (like a favorite character dying or a particular bad guy getting away). As long as the future of the story meets my satisfaction, I can continue to enjoy reading the story.

I have struggled of late to keep from researching more and more of the plot of The Force Awakens as I wanted to see the movie with a fresh perspective, untainted by knowledge of the plot and events that occur in the movie. This is especially in light of the fact that the main characters from the original trilogy play a part in the new movie – surely, for the sake of the plot and based on the events from the first and third movies we can’t count on all of them making it through the story all in one piece. Plus, putting together the events portrayed in the various trailers that have now been released, it seems that even the new characters may not entirely be safe. But I managed to resist up until now, knowing that with the advanced releases, the plot is readily available online.

But I have failed in my venture. Upon doing a bit of fact checking to make sure I got names and dates right for this blog, the temptation became too great, and as I found myself clicking from one article to the next, I was inexorably drawn to the page that would take me to the details of The Force Awakens. Hand on mouse, the compulsion to use that scroll wheel to continue further and further down the page became a temptation that I could no longer resist. And like Anakin Skywalker, I fell and learned of things that I wish I could now unlearn – like a young Luke Skywalker was advised by a diminutive Jedi Master oh so long ago.

I can only hope that when I see Disney’s and JJ’s vision of the new Star Wars play itself out on the big screen some time in the next couple of weeks that the vision has done enough justice to the franchise and this fan’s vision for those characters to remove that pit that has firmly lodged itself in my stomach.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Fool in the Stands

So it’s Back to the Future Day. The day that the Cubs were supposed to win the World Series against Miami (ironic that the Florida Marlins changed to Miami a few years back). Well, while that obviously is not going to come true this year (though the Cubs still might have a shot), the results of last night’s Kansas City and Toronto game brought a slight smile to my face.
It’s not that I inherently care which team wins the series – though there was a time back when the Expos were still around that I was hoping for an all Canadian World Series when they and the Blue Jays had both made the play offs that year – but if Toronto ends up losing, that would be OK with me, and it’s all a result of the actions of the fans during their game with the Texas Rangers last week. The short of it was that the Toronto catcher was throwing the ball back to the pitcher and instead hit the Kansas City batter who was preparing himself in the batter’s box. The ball rolled into the infield, allowing the KC runner on third base to score the go ahead run in the game. The Umpires ruled it a live ball, after review, and thus confirming that the run was good. It seemed that there were few who disagreed with how it played out – except for the Toronto fans.
As a result, quite a few of them in the stands decided to show their displeasure with the result by throwing things on to the field. Of course, most of what was tossed never made it out of the stands, and in fact, a woman and her baby were nearly hit with a beer can (the baby ended up getting sprayed with the contents of the can as it sailed near them). Needless to say that those types of reactions are a complete disgrace, but unfortunately, it seems to be more the norm in the sporting world – be it the fans acting unruly, or the athletes themselves engaging in a round of fisticuffs (or worse) with someone – usually their significant other of the moment. And it’s not just limited to American sports – heck I think it’s even worse overseas when it comes to Soccer (or Football as is proper for that neck of the woods).
I do give credit to the Toronto players who were trying to get everyone calmed down so that the game could continue. Personally, if I was a player on the team, I would have grabbed the stadium microphone and told those people straight up that they need to stop acting like a-holes and get a life. As a player, I would have been ashamed to have people like that rooting for me.
Maybe it’s me, but I find it hard to understand people who get so involved and worked up in a sporting event that they someone feel that these kinds of actions are an appropriate response when something doesn’t go the way of their team. I’ll root for teams and players, and I have my favorites in a few sports, but ultimately, whether a team wins the relevant championship in their respective sport or not, has little impact on most people’s lives – unless of course you’re a gambler and have money riding on the outcome – but’s a story for another blog perhaps.
My team just won the game?
            Woo hoo … now let me get back to vacuuming the floor. After all, I don’t think Peyton Manning nor Chase Utley are coming to my house to clean my toilet any time soon.
             I just can’t get all that excited over the results of a sporting event in which I am not actually a participant. I couldn’t even tell you more than a couple players at the most who are on any team that I root for. I always find it amusing when someone starts engaging me in conversation about a particular team or other if I happen to be wearing a hat or t-shirt with their logo on it. I just nod my head and try to offer an opinion or two that sound fairly plausible or credible, but I pretty much could not care less about what the franchise management is doing to the team. I still have to go to work. I still have to feed the kids and the animals. I still have to clean the house. Nothing about the outcome of a game is going to change any of that, or make my life any better. For people to act like they do on the outcome of a game or a play is just asinine to me, especially when it escalates to the point that it did in the Toronto game.
             So maybe because of that, I am a little more engaged than I normally would be in the outcome of the series between the Royals and the Blue Jays, and am rooting a little bit harder for Kansas City to come out on top.

Oh yeah – and go Cubbies!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Extra Life

And so another month has gone by in a blink of the eye. The weather is turning, the hurricane became a bust, and Abigail became a 1-year-old, who is already addicted to the sweet stuff. Over the past year, if I give myself enough time before or after work, I’ll drive the highway off which the hospital is located where she was born at the end of last September. I remember thinking how nice and upscale it is and not minding staying a few days there (for good things of course), until the third day after Abby was born and all we wanted to do was get her home and enjoy the new life God gave to us. The shininess had worn off by then. I guess it didn’t help that Erin still had to go to school, and I still had to get to work the rest of the week, and of course the animals still needed food and water. Still, the hospital was a heck of a lot nicer than the one in which Erin was born.

It never ceases to amaze me every day that despite still being a baby just how intelligent children seem to be at this age. That’s one of the few things I remember about Erin at that point in time. Even before Abby started crawling, back when she was in the rolling phase, you could see her look around and set her mind on going somewhere or getting something and heading off in that direction to reach her goal. You can look in her eyes and know she’s up to something. I never thought I would say this when I was younger, but it’s so much fun having a baby in the house … again.

That could be one of the reasons why I’ve gotten involved in a special project the last couple of years. I’ve always been a Gamer, and have always enjoyed being able to escape the real world for a time by heading on an adventure in some dungeon in a Computer Role-Playing Game (CRPG) or building up a small village castle in a game called Stronghold, as well as a more modern city in one of the SimCity games. Never did I think that I would be able to do anything more than that with games (though there were always thoughts about being able to make a living like all those Professional Gamers in South Korea), but that changed when I heard about an annual charity event called Extra Life a couple of years ago when I was playing an on-line game called Defiance.

The developers of the game are one of several gaming industry companies that sponsor the Extra Life event every year that helps to bring in millions of dollars to the Children’s Miracle Network of Hospitals. So I decided to learn a little bit more about the event and the organization that runs it, and after watching the video that gave some background on how the event got started (check it out for yourself with the link below – it’s well worth the 13 minutes to watch), I felt compelled to join in the cause and do what I can to help raise money for the event.

Essentially, the event is a 24 hour marathon – not unlike those annual Jerry Lewis telethons from oh so long ago, where gamers get people to sponsor them as they play games over the course of 24 hours around the last weekend in October or the first weekend in November. The details can be found in the video and on the Extra Life website (www.Extra-Life.org), so I’ll spare the words giving them here in favor of why I wanted to help support this event.

As a father, I was brought to tears after watching the video, and it still affects me profoundly every time I watch it up to this day. No parent wants their child to be hurt or to feel pain. Yet every day, thousands of kids across the country spend their days lying in a hospital bed, suffering from a myriad of serious diseases and other ailments. Many years ago, I had a co-worker whose young daughter was one of those kids, and I could see the fear and worry in his eyes every day as he thought about what she had to go through in order to save her life. I could not imagine having to go through that with Erin or Abby, and I truthfully don’t know how I would be able to live every day knowing one of them was hurting and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I am fortunate that this is something I only have to think about and not actually experience, and hope I never have to. However, there are all those kids, and their families, going through those things every day, and thanks to Extra Life, I can feel like I am doing something to help ease their suffering, even if just for a little while.

So starting Friday, November 6th, at 8:00 PM Eastern Time, I will be participating in my third consecutive Extra Life marathon. Every penny that I raise from now until the end of 2015 will go to the CMN hospital that I choose to sponsor, which is the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. It may not be much, but at least I can feel good that I am doing what I can to help the kids in CHOP and their families get some of the care and comfort that they need. I hope that everyone who reads this can share it with their friends and family, and tell them to keep on sharing it as well. Unfortunately, despite the good that Extra Life does, it seems that news organizations are more interested in running stories about gamers shooting up groups of people instead of gamers doing something they love to help children get healthier.

And now for the shameless begging … This year I am hoping to reach a modest goal of $300 raised for CHOP, and I am hoping that each and every person reading this blog, and those they pass it on to, can help me reach that goal. Even if it’s only a $1 donation, every single penny is welcome and appreciated. Everyone is also invited to join me during my marathon as I enjoy one of my favorite hobbies for a great cause. You can watch me via a live stream on Twitch.tv and join me in the chat room to root me on - or just keep me awake! I hope to also have some special family guests pop in during the marathon.

Thank you everyone for reading and I hope I can count on your support this year!

To make a donation, visit my participant page:

The Extra Life Video:

Thursday, September 10, 2015

It’s the End of the Summer as we know it

… and I feel … odd. I think it started about a month ago at this point, on my way to work in the mornings. At first, it was having to put the visor down every morning as the sun would be beaming right in the windshield. Then, within a span of only a week or so, I noticed that it was still dark when I got up in the morning, to get ready to head off to work, and I needed the visor less and less. Now, only a couple of weeks later, it seems like the dead of night when I’m heading down the road and pulling into the parking lot. It just struck me so much that during one week, I began to take note each day of where the sun, or the light by that time was each morning and could discern the difference between the start and the end of the week. I don’t know if it’s ironic, but it’s a strange thing that the start of the summer, with the longest day of the year, also marks the beginning of the end, as the days only get shorter from there on out.

I don’t find it depressing but more disconcerting. We made our final trip to Hershey for the summer the last Wednesday of August, and despite the enjoyable experience it was (despite the three trips on Skyrush the first thing in the morning) with the mid-late summer crowds having already come and gone, there was that air of finality hanging over the trip. Sure there might be those one or two chances to head back for the seasonal events in the Fall and Winter, but it’s just not the same as all those trips made during the summer months. It seems like we were anxiously anticipating the end of the school year so we can make those treks not too long ago, and now here we are, already finishing the opening week of the new school year. How much longer before we see those first few snowflakes of the season? Sometimes how I wish for a TARDIS to be able to, if not stop time for a while, at least remain in a certain point of it for much longer than reality lets it last.

Which reminds me … I really need to get back to work on my Doctor Who spin-off stories. I have a couple chapters written already, but can never feel satisfied enough with what I already have to go back and write some more.

Anyway, while contemplating this, I realized that we’re not too far from the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, and was taken aback that we’re already at the 14th anniversary. It doesn’t seem like four years have gone by since the 10th anniversary was honored. Again, it never ceases to amaze me how fast time seems to be moving now more than ever. Thinking about that got me to wondering what other anniversaries have come and gone, and I realized that it seems the 35th anniversary of Mt. Saint Helens’ eruption was completely passed by. Maybe it was I was too busy that day to notice mention on the news reports – if I even watched any. What I really find odd, though, it that it is one of those few major events that have occurred in my life that I can’t remember where I was or what I was doing when I heard about it. I still remember watching the docu-drama about the eruption, but that’s pretty much it. I remember where I was when I heard about the Challenger and the Columbia, and of course on that day back in 2001, but nothing for St. Helens. Perhaps it’s because that event was less impactful for me at my age back then than the others were.

The finality of time rolling on is a strange thing. This past week seemed even stranger still as summer (despite having another couple of “official” weeks) gave us one more taste of the heat that marks that one special season of the year where three months are set apart from the other nine. It’s always been special to me – all those summers of the great battles: G.I. Joe vs. COBRA and the Autobots vs. the Decepticons out in the backyard, and those great intergalactic battles with every conceivable group of action figures in the possession of my brother and myself. If there was one good thing about being unemployed a couple years ago it was for the fact that for the first time in a long time I had a summer that I could thoroughly enjoy and at least replay those days of glory in my mind, even if I couldn’t relive them like I used to oh so long ago. The one thing I miss the most, though, are those cross-country trips we used to take as a family. I hope that we can at least have one year where we can give our kids a taste of what that was like. Until then, all there is to do is wait for the next nine months to go by and start looking for the next time the weather forecast mentions the term “heat wave.”