Monday, January 15, 2018

Winter of Discontent – Baby, It’s Cold Outside (and Inside)

As a life-long New Yorker, I never thought I would say this but “I want out of here.” This is not because of the tourists, the crowded trains, or high cost of living; those are things that I have always accepted and understood. No, the thing that is driving me away is this relentless winter weather. I am numbly cold, mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore – Florida, here I come!

Now I will explain how I have come to this decision. My frustration with this wacky winter of 2018 has reached a breaking point. Only the other day it was a balmy 63 degrees, and I went outside in my T-shirt and took down the Christmas decorations. They had been covered in snow and ice and it all magically melted away. The next day I went out to get the mail – once again wearing a T-shirt – and it felt like I had stepped into Old Man Winter’s living room. This erratic and unpredictable weather is annoying and driving people, including yours truly, crazy.

Global Colding?

At the coffee shop I frequent people keep debating global warming. Some say it is because of global warming that it is so cold, while others say there can be no such thing because these intensely cold days prove otherwise. Since I don’t know enough about the topic, I stay quiet, sip my coffee, and just listen.

As usual, I like to check in with Manny, the former Brooklyn Dodgers fan who at ten years old cried for a week when they packed up and went out to LA. Manny, dressed in Mets cap and bundled in a Jets jacket and matching sweat pants, held the newspaper up in front his face with both hands sporting Knicks gloves. 

When I asked him about the weather and global warming, he looked up from the sports page of the NY Post and said, “I don’t have to hear facts and figures from a meteorologist because all I know is that I’m freezing my butt off. Let’s talk about global colding.”

I can always count on Manny for a quotable response. Personally, I leave the debate about global warming to others who know more about it. Whether this extreme cold is due to global warming or not, all I know is that Jack Frost isn’t just nipping at my nose; he’s trying to bite the whole thing off.

Cold House Problems

The other day when I came home my wife and kids all had on their scarves, hats, and heavy sweaters to beat the cold, but the problem was that they were sitting inside our house. We have made it through cold New York winters before, but this is the first time I can remember being so cold inside the house.

In normal times I like to keep the thermostat at the recommended levels – 56 degrees at night and 68 degrees during the day – but it has been impossible to comply with these guidelines this year. We are all cold and my wife keeps telling me “the kids are shivering,” so I put the thermostat up to 70 degrees but that didn’t help. Even when pushed up to 73 degrees, it felt cold in the house and, despite pumping radiators, the temperature in the living room still remained at 68 degrees.

Temperature Variations

Eventually the living room achieved a 73-degree reading, but that was only in that room where the thermostat is located. Other rooms in the house registered different temperatures. The kitchen was 70 degrees but felt colder. It was a relatively balmy 67 degrees in my son’s room, but it still felt slightly cold in there as we heard the wind whipping against the side of the house, while the upstairs bathroom came in at 63.7 degrees with the outside temperature at 17.6 degrees.

The attic, which is finished and functions as my son’s playroom, is officially the coldest room in the house with a 57-degree temperature. The warmest area is the basement where the furnace is located. The finished area was 75 degrees, so it is not surprising that everyone decided to go down there to watch TV.

Even with the thermostat set to 73 degrees, various sections of the house remained cooler, making a heavy robe or sweater necessary. I started to envy Ebenezer Scrooge’s bed curtains and wondered if they would make a difference at night if we had them.


It has snowed so many times already this winter, that I am on a first name basis with my shovel. I call him Norton – in honor of the lovable but annoying character on The Honeymooners played by the late great Art Carney – and every time it snows I say, “Here we go again, Norton!”

The last snow storm dumped 15 inches of the white stuff on our area, and the snow didn’t stop falling until like 5 p.m. At that point it was getting dark and extremely cold, and my son wanted to build a snowman, but the conditions were truly painful. I told him that we had to wait and would do it in the morning. Grabbing Norton, I had to go out into the arctic cold night and shovel away. I have never liked shoveling snow, but this year I have grown to hate it because even bundled in layers and wearing gloves I was freezing.

The next morning brilliant sunshine fooled us into thinking the snow would melt, but it was 9 degrees outside and the snow in the yard had turned to ice, making it impossible to build a snowman. Grrr!!!

Frozen Pipes

The next problem we had was frozen cold-water pipes. Both the powder room sink and the kitchen sink’s lines froze. Unfortunately, both lines run close to an exterior wall and get blocked if the temperature falls below 20 degrees outside. Using my daughter’s hairdryer, I heated both pipes and now they are flowing again. A friend who is a plumber told me to keep the cold water dripping slightly to stop the pipes from freezing up again, so now we have water dripping in both sinks and that will slowly cost us more money, but it is better than having busted pipes and a flooded basement.

The Solution

After being cold to the bone and then feeling like the bone is frozen too, I realized that this will never get better. Over the last five years each winter seems to have gotten progressively harsher and piercingly colder. It is like Old Man Winter is torturing us, and I must say he is succeeding beyond even his pernicious expectations.

I don’t like extremely hot weather either, but there are ways to cool off and they seem much easier than trying to stay warm. There is something quite overwhelming about trying to stay warm, and wearing multiple layers used to give me some respite from the cold, but it doesn’t seem to work this year, and wearing multiple layers is extremely uncomfortable and can limit movement. Oh, and boots – I hate boots.

So, after deliberation and discussion with the family, we have decided that it is time to start the process of getting out of this iceberg. We will be moving south – as far south as possible. I don’t care about the alligators and the hurricanes and the intense summer heat. As long as I can wear shorts all year long and never have to touch a snow shovel again (bye, bye, Norton), everything will be just fine, but damn it, I’m going to miss Manny. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Movie Review: Paddington 2 – Great for the Kids But Parents Will Like It as Well

Sometimes I wonder why they even make a sequel, yet that thought never crossed my mind while watching Paddington 2 with my son. Sitting in a theater filled with children who were as enthusiastic as he was, I found the film to be a delight as well.

Having loved the original 2015 film, I wondered how director Paul King (who co-wrote the script with Simon Farnaby) could pull off a sequel to something that seemed nearly perfect. Happily, King brings back original cast members and adds a couple of dynamite new ones – Hugh Grant and Brendan Gleeson – and the result is pure joy.

Paddington (voiced by Ben Wishaw) is amazingly realized and never once did I think about the CGI that went into creating him. Paddington moves around and interacts with the human characters flawlessly, and everything from the hair on his body to the bubble from his nose under water to the tear on his face, does nothing to suggest that this is not the real little Peruvian bear we have all come to love.

As the film begins we see Paddington happily ensconced in the Windsor Gardens neighborhood of London that the Brown family calls home. The Browns – dad Henry (Hugh Bonneville), mom Mary (Sally Hawkins), son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), and daughter Judy (Madeline Harris), along with cranky housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) – all love and care for Paddington as another family member. Paddington has endeared himself to their neighbors as well, making small but significant differences in each of their lives, except for the surly self-elected neighborhood watchman Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi).

All is going well until Paddington discovers an old pop-up book of various London landmarks in Mr. Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop and decides to get it as a birthday gift for his beloved Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) back in Peru. Gruber explains that it is very expensive, so this makes Paddington take on jobs for which he is ill suited and results in laugh out loud antics (judging from my son and kids in the theater audience) that slowly earn him enough money to buy the book.

The problem is that this book is also sought by has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan – played with panache by Grant – who somehow knows that the book contains a secret code that will lead him to a vast fortune. When Grant dresses in one of his old stage costumes as a disguise and breaks into Gruber’s store to get the book, Paddington attempts to stop him and ends up getting arrested for the theft.

One of the kids in the theater blurted out, “That’s not fair,” and indeed it is not, but it sets up the premise of Paddington in jail as he gets thrown in with a bunch of thugs and gets to wear prison pinstripes - which he turns pink along with all the other jailbirds’ clothes in a laundry room accident – setting his fellow prisoners temporarily against him.

Of course, just as Paddington won over the hearts of the Browns and the Windsor Gardens neighbors, Paddington somehow manages to do the same with inmates by taming the irascible prison chef Knuckles McGinty (the hilarious Gleeson) by teaching him the recipe for his delicious marmalade sandwiches.

While Paddington does “hard time” in jail, the Browns take it upon themselves to try to find the real thief and clear the lovable ursine’s name. We are getting into spoiler territory now, but the rest of the ride is joyful for the kids and throws in enough subtle tidbits to keep adults happy too.

Grant’s performance is his best in years, and the key is his willingness to go with the hammy actor concept, but shading it with nuances that reveal the underlying suffering of a once celebrated thespian who is forced to take on dog food commercials to survive. As the villain of the story, he is mean enough but sprinkles tongue-in-cheek humor in each scene that is refreshing.

At the core of a film that is funny, sad, and at times intriguing – as the Browns get better at playing detectives to solve the mystery – is a little bear who has heart and soul. Paddington teaches by example, showing that kindness, respect, and acceptance – even for the incarcerated scoundrels he encounters – are important ways to live life. It's a lesson that will be understood by kids and hopefully their parents.

While some little ones might get a bit worried that Paddington is in trouble here and there, it is always understood that Paddington is safe. It is also quite clear that his innate goodness shines brightly and touches everyone, even the most hardened criminals who end up becoming his friends, and this gets him out of difficult situations. King has done an excellent job of bringing the essence of the warmth and love found in Michael Bond’s books to the screen.

Overall, Paddington 2 delivers joy and delight and is as good – or perhaps even a tad better – than the original film. Your kids will love it and you’ll be leaving the theater with a smile on your face as well. Oh, and stick around for the closing credits for some additional scenes. They are a hoot.  

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Stars Wars: The Last Jedi Is Not the Star Wars Movie You Wanted But One You Needed

*This article contains some spoilers.

Since I wrote a rather glowing review about Star Wars: The Last Jedi I have gotten some feedback – in person and online – and most of it is from people grumbling about the movie and angry that I liked it so much. I realize that they believed that it was not what they wanted and that especially the character of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) greatly disappointed them.

Recently Hamill added fuel to the fire in an interview when he said the character “…is not my Luke Skywalker.” Afterwards he backtracked and apologized for talking about “creative differences” with SWTLJ director Rian Johnson, but the damage was already done, and the people who didn’t like the film pointed to Hamill’s remarks as corroboration of their opinions.

Honestly, there was something in both The Last Jedi and its predecessor The Force Awakens that I wish had been different. One of the key things I wanted was an onscreen reunion of Luke, Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in these films. Since Han met his end in The Force Awakens, I knew that would not be possible this time around, but that is probably my biggest disappointment.

When I got to thinking about it though, I understood the reasoning behind the big three not getting back together. I understood a most salient point that directors J.J. Abrams (The Force Awakens) and Johnson were making – this is not the Star Wars movie you wanted but it was one you needed. Life moves on, people change and get older and, sadly, they die.

Now I am sure I will get more flack for saying this, but I see the logic of it all very clearly. Mostly, Luke could not stay the fair-haired teenager we first saw on Tatooine 40+ years ago. He has grown older, experienced tragedy and loss, and is not the same person that we first met in A New Hope. If he were then the directors would not have been depicting a truthful progression of the character. Luke has gone so far from wanting to join the Academy to becoming a Jedi to basically saving the galaxy. Eventually he grows older and wiser and begins training new Jedi, but that ends in disaster.

I realize that Hamill has an emotional investment in Luke (as do the fans) and that what he said about Luke came from an honest place, but then he also took into account the arc of the whole story and understood his place in it. All I have to do is see my own truth in Hamill’s dilemma – I am not the same person I was when I first went to see Star Wars as a teenager in 1977. While there are facets of my personality that are similar, I have grown older and do not approach these films with the same starry-eyed optimism I once did. So, sure, I will always like A New Hope and remember it fondly, but no other film in the series can ever be like it again and rightly so.

Some of those people complaining to me have mentioned they want A New Hope type of film in the series because it ended on such a positive note. I understand that but, if you examine the seven other films honestly, you can consider the ending of A New Hope as an aberration. Think of the dismal ending of The Empire Strikes Back as evidence that even by the second film George Lucas had a different idea for the trajectory of these characters.

Some may argue that the ending of Return of the Jedi is hopeful, but I have always wondered about the impact of Darth Vader’s death on Luke, the inability to really get to know his father and losing him so quickly after Vader’s turn to the light side. When Luke sees the vision of the Force ghosts of his father, Yoda, and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), it is foreshadowing of the fact that one day he will join their ranks. By the time we see him in The Last Jedi, he has renounced the Force and that would not have happened, if not for Rey (Daisy Ridley) saving him by getting Luke to reconnect to the Force.

I know that nothing will stop those who hate the movie from hating it. Still the over $1 billion dollar (and counting) box office for SWTLJ indicates that people are going to see the film – and sometimes more than once like yours truly – and that they like something about it.

There is much to enjoy in The Last Jedi – new characters, great battle sequences, different exotic planets, and strange new creatures. The characters introduced in The Force Awakens get more development, and it seems clear that Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rey are now ready to replace Luke, Leia, and Han as the series’ main characters. Rey is truly the new Luke, an orphan child raised on a desert planet. She is one with the Force with a good and true heart just like his and, though she may have a tinge of darkness in her, that will not turn her to the dark side but rather will make her an even more potent opponent against it.

With the sad loss of Carrie Fisher we realize that she cannot be part of the ninth film – due in December 2019 – so we must face facts and realize that the old gang we knew and loved is gone. I do understand this upsets fans, but all fans must remember a crucial truth – Star Wars is bigger than Vader and Luke, Leia and Han, or Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) too. This truth has always been there but some loyal fans do not like thinking about it.

Star Wars is and always will be a story of light and dark, good verses evil, and that is an eternal struggle in the galaxy far, far away as well in our own. With a planned new trilogy to come after the ninth film, we must understand this battle will go on and on, and all I know is that I want to be along for the ride no matter who is the pilot of the Millenium Falcon.

May the Force be with you all now and always!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

New Year’s Resolution Already Broken – The “New” Wallet

According to a report in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, more than 50% of Americans will be unable to keep their New Year's Day resolutions by June. Well, I am not even 48 hours into 2018, and I have already broken one of my New Year’s resolutions – to use the Wallet app on my iPhone instead of having a wallet in my pocket. 

I have had a smart phone for about ten years now, but I was told that I’m not very “smart” about the way I use it by one of the tech savvy millennials in my family. This well meaning relation explained that my phone can do so much more than just text, take pictures, and make phone calls, dashing my belief that I knew what I was doing with it.

So Many Apps and So Little Time

Okay, I realize there are many apps on my phone that I never use – and probably will never use like Watch (I don't have an Apple Watch) or Numbers  but I was okay with that. When I received a new wallet for Christmas (from someone in my age group), I was told by a youngling that I didn’t even need a wallet anymore. There was an app on my phone that could take that annoying thing out of my pocket for good, leaving new space for – wait for it, my phone.

I never really thought twice about carrying a wallet before since it is something I have done all my life, but when I thought about it a wallet is a nuisance to carry around. It is heavy and bulky and creates a bulge in my pocket. Why wouldn’t I want to get rid of it?

I explored my phone and realized maybe I should be using something like the GarageBand or Pages app, but the first one I would tap and get into would be the Wallet app. I had made a list of several resolutions, and the first on the list was to get rid of my wallet. 

Reality Hits the Fan

My father and his generation were very reticent about doing things online. I remember telling my Dad that he could do his banking, research and buy and sell stocks, and even buy a car online. He reluctantly got a laptop and I showed him how to use it, and he quickly learned (at age 85) how to send email and to search topics and read the news. Once he realized what he could do Dad loved the laptop but he did not embrace all its possibilities – refusing to do banking or his taxes or anything financially related on it.

So now when I tapped the Wallet app and prepared to get started, I kept thinking of Dad as I plunged in. The problem was as I read the fine print on the screen, I felt a deep pain in my stomach. Dad always said “Trust your gut” and it just seemed like I was giving Apple way too much of my personal information. It didn’t feel right – no matter how convenient or logical the app may be – and so I tapped “Cancel” and that was that, so much for my first resolution for 2018.

The New Wallet

Since I did receive a new physical wallet for Christmas, I decided to use it instead of throwing it in a drawer with several other new wallets that I received as gifts and that still languish in unopened boxes. I've resisted getting rid of the old wallet that I used for the last 15 years because changing wallets is almost as bad as moving, but this new wallet is supposedly a “security” one that will prevent malevolent individuals from scanning it to get my credit card numbers and other personal information. That seemed like a good idea to me.

Taking credit cards and other things out of my wallet brought back memories, including a little card my daughter had made me in third grade. I couldn’t believe the little notes and old bills that had been stuffed in there. I resolved that my new wallet would not be a storage place for anything other than what was necessary.

As soon as I put the two wallets side by side there was an obvious problem – the new wallet was substantially bigger than the old one. The intention of my original resolution was to free up pocket space for my cell phone, but now I wasn’t sure if this new wallet would even fit in my pocket. I tested it quickly and it did fit, but would it be the same once I filled it with all my items?

Once I got all my pictures, credit and other cards, and license and registration into the wallet, I realized that it had expanded like an excited Mrs. Puff on SpongeBob. Now as I put the wallets side by side the new one looked way bigger than the old one.

A Trial Run

I needed to go to the grocery store and also had to put gas in my car, so I got up and tried to get the wallet into my back pants pocket. I could not do so without reaching around with my other hand to hold the pocket open. As I walked toward the door I felt as if I had something large on my hip, and despite my wife and kids saying it looked fine, their poor attempts at hiding smirks and snickers told me otherwise.

I drove to the gas station and got out to swipe my credit card in the pump; I struggled to get out my wallet and had to use both hands to extract it. I felt like I was being watched and, as I looked up, the other people pumping gas turned away. I swiped my card and decided to put my wallet in my front coat pocket for easy accessibility.

In the grocery store I usually take off my coat and put it in the shopping cart, but because my wallet was in the coat I could not do that. As I walked up and down the aisles I felt very hot in the coat, and I realized the same thing would happen to me again and again going into stores or restaurants. I don’t like wearing my coat indoors and so the wallet in its front pocket was not a good system.

And in the End

I went home, put the groceries away, and then took the wallet from my coat pocket and went into my office. I sat staring at it and my old wallet on my desk. I viewed one as a trusty old friend and the other as a nuisance. I had already broken one resolution, but using a new physical wallet had not been on my resolution list. It seemed like the smart thing to do, but reality got in the way.

You probably guessed I put everything back into the old wallet. All my items slipped back into their places effortlessly, and then I closed it and put it in my back pocket with ease. I took the new wallet and threw it in with the others I had received as gifts still in their boxes, and I felt okay about it as I shut the drawer.

So what that I broke a resolution in the first 48 hours of the new year? Who cares that I now carry around an old wallet that is not tech secure? It fits in my pocket and I can extract it with one hand – that’s all that matters to me.

Because of this situation, I have made a new resolution – if something is working okay, I resolve not to do anything to make it otherwise. As my Dad’s father always used to say, “Change for change’s sake is always a mistake.” Yes, indeed!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Favorite Toys Christmas 2017 – A Very Subjective List

Santa's Presents Before Opening  – The Calm Before the Storm

Santa has come and gone, and in the days after Christmas the greatest delight is discovering the wonders of new toys. My nine-year-old and I have opened most of the toys the Jolly Old Elf brought down the chimney, and the fun part – after the excruciating process of cutting through the layers of thick plastic packaging, undoing security ties, and inserting batteries – is actually playing and experimenting with these toys.

Before getting to the list of top ten toys, I must point out that Santa has changed in two salient ways since I was a kid – he is making much cooler toys and he has become exceedingly more generous. I do not deny my son the benefits of these changes in St. Nick, but I am a bit envious.

The following list represents my son’s choices in order from ten to one, with one being his favorite toy. The narrative attached to each toy is my paraphrase of my son’s words used to explain why he likes each one. In some cases, I have thrown in my own two cents, but this list mostly represents his opinion about each item and a brief description.

10. Mega Construx Destiny

This toy comes with a figure and features a “gladiator battle” scene. I thought it was kind of a LEGO imitation, but my son did put this on his list to Santa and he seems to like that the playset features multiple accessories and very vivid colors. Judging from what is included in the set, it offers many opportunities for creative play. Oddly enough, he likes the packaging so much he has yet to play with this toy, so the fact that it has made his top-ten list is pretty impressive.

9. Laser X – Laser Tag Set

We have gone out to the large and rather crowded and annoying arcades where prices for a few games are quite expensive, and the gear can be heavy and cumbersome. Somehow Santa has come up with this cool set that comes with two blasters and two attached vest sensors. Now we can play as long as we like and have our own adventure in the basement, attic, or in the yard. The blasters have about a 40-foot range and – at least it happens to me – you can get shot from behind if the signal somehow bounces off a mirror or glass panel. I love this game because it gets my kid moving and keeps him active. Daddy gives thumbs up to this one!

8. Marvel’s Spider-Man and Vulture Action Figures

We both loved the Spider-Man: Homecoming movie that actually made us both fans of the Web-crawler once again. These figures are beautifully sculpted and feature vibrant colors and come with accessories. As you can see both remain sealed in their packages, so we have not had an actual play experience with them yet. For some reason my son likes the packaging and has been displaying them. As with the Mega Construx set, I am surprised that these figures have made the list.

7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi BB-9E Electronic Droid

If you like master pilot Poe Dameron’s adorable droid BB-8, you might also like his “evil” counterpart – the First Order’s cunning BB-9E. This little fellow makes all sorts of noises and races around the room knocking over other toys and ramming into people’s legs. It is a beautiful looking toy in a sleek, cool, smooth black and illuminates with multi-colored lights. I’m not too keen on this one, but my son loves it which gets it on the list.

6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi Plush Porg

In Star Wars: The Last Jedi there are a number of new creatures, but my son’s favorite was the little bird-like creatures called the Porg. They are really cute and find their way in Chewie’s – and ours – heart as he sits by a fire and gets ready to eat one of their roasted brethren. The toy makes a number of little noises and waddles across the floor. My son did not put this on his Santa list but did express a wish to get one after seeing the movie, and that Santa somehow knows everything for goodness sake.

5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi Luke Skywalker Action Figure

While my son has been into LEGO figures over the past couple of years, he did express interest in getting some action figures after seeing the movie. The one he wanted most was Luke Skywalker, and this figure did not disappoint. Featuring an impressive likeness to the character, removeable hood, and accurate representation of the clothing, this is one fine figure that could be displayed or played with. It comes with one accessory – a boring staff and not a light saber – which still didn’t stop it from landing on this list.

4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi Chewbacca Action Figure with Porg

While my son has always loved Chewie, he really likes this set because it comes with a Porg. As you can see from the picture, Porgs are tiny compared to a Wookie, but they had a big impact on Chewie and gave us insight into his character in the film. My son thinks that Chewie is just a big old softie, and the proof is that the Porg get him to adopt them (and their babies). He wanted this figure more because of the little Porg than Chewie.

3. LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens Rathtar Escape (75180)

While I thought this Christmas would have been all about The Last Jedi, my son still likes The Force Awakens and especially remembers the scene on Han Solo’s freighter when the Octopus like Rathtar’s escape from their holding pens. This LEGO set lets him recreate that scene and it has great details and features like opening and sliding doors and comes with Han Solo, Chewie, and BB-8 as well as two of those ravenous creatures. He assembled it all by himself and rather quickly. It has provided him an opportunity to creatively change some aspects of the scenes from the movie, and Daddy gives two thumbs up for this one.

The last two items on this list came as a surprise and beat out an X-Wing and TIE fighter from The Last Jedi; however, I should have expected it because my son loves the TV show Star Wars Rebels and would want to have vehicles used by the characters. The Phantom is an attack shuttle from the Ghost, the mothership, and is used as a transport and to interact with adversaries on the ground. My son loves the opening cockpit and spring-loader shooter. Included with the vehicle are Ezra Bridger (with blaster) and Chopper (a droid). This is a beautiful toy and attaches to the next item on the list.

1. LEGO Star Wars Rebels Ghost (75053)

The best way to describe the Ghost is as the Millenium Falcon of Star Wars Rebels. It is used in the battle against the Empire but is also home to the crew. A significant portion of the show’s action takes place on the ship. This item has been discontinued by LEGO but is available online or, as in our case, from Santa. It is a very attractive and intricate toy but, with almost a thousand pieces, it took us about five hours to build it. If you have patience, you will be rewarded because it is a wonderful toy. If you have the shuttle The Phantom (sold separately), it fits into the bigger ship just as in the TV show. The set comes with Ezra Bridger, Kanan Jarrus, Hera Syndulla, Zeb Orrelios, and a new Stormtrooper (five figures with a vehicle seems quite generous) and features two escape pods, two gunner turrets, and opening cockpit. Despite the long building time, we have played with this toy a lot and enjoyed recreating scenes from the show. Daddy’s three thumbs up for this one.

There is my son’s very subjective list of favorite toys, and I agree with him for the most part except regarding the two unopened items. I like to see and feel a toy and also gauge its playability factor, so I reserve my judgement on those until we play with them.

I’d like to give honorable mentions to Star Wars: The Last Jedi Kylo Ren’s TIE Fighter and Poe Dameron’s X-Wing, both of which I can’t believe didn’t make the list since he has already played with them. They are fabulous toys and I have enjoyed when we have played with them.

Since seven out of the ten list items are Star Wars related ones, I guess it is good that my son has interest in other things besides the galaxy far, far away and LEGO bricks. We have come such a long way from Bob the Builder, Barney the Dinosaur, and Mickey Mouse. In a way I miss those days even though I am enjoying how we play now, sadly realizing that one day I will be missing these days as well.

As this will be my last article for 2017, I would like to wish all my readers Happy New Year and all the best in 2018.  

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Aliens and UFOs – Either Our Best Hope or Worst Nightmare

The Pilot and the UFO

This past week it has been hard to ignore the headline making story about U.S. Navy pilot David Fravor (retired) telling of his 2004 encounter with a UFO. Making his tale all the more convincing was a video from the Department of Defense showing the incident.

Saying it was “something I had never seen in my life” Fravor described the object as having no wings and that it flew erratically “like a ping pong ball, bouncing off the wall.” Even with the video and Fravor’s eyewitness account, he knows that there are people who do not believe him, but accepts that because “It is easy to doubt what we can’t explain.”

My Somewhat Close Encounter

I believe Fravor because I too saw something many years ago for which I have no explanation. I was a teenager walking my dog on the beach on the south shore of Long Island just after sunset, and I saw an object shoot across the sky over the ocean, stop, and then zip in the other direction over the shoreline. It hovered briefly and then zipped upwards and shot toward the horizon and disappeared. I asked my dog if he saw it and he just wagged his tail – so much for witnesses.

All these years later I think about that incident and know there has to be intelligent life on other planets. Even without seeing that object, I can believe this because the numerical possibilities of star systems with planets make it likely that there has to be at least one planet like ours that can support life. All the UFO sightings (documented and many undocumented like mine) make me believe even more that we are not alone.

Possibilities Other Than UFOs

There are many people who think these UFO sightings are hoaxes – you know, some guy tossing a Frisbee and then taking photo. There are also the usual suspects like weather balloons and drones that get folks unnecessarily spooked. A good example happened yesterday in Los Angeles when many citizens thought that they spotted a real UFO and took photos but were disappointed to learn it was Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that had just taken off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. 

I do realize that this happens and perhaps can account for some – or even many – of the reported sightings of UFOs; however, my personal experience and others like Commander Fravor’s cannot be discounted unless some evidence like the SpaceX rocket launch can be provided.

Aliens Could Be a Good Thing

Aliens and their ships – the UFOs people have been seeing – can be in some ways a hopeful sign. Since their planets would have to be light years away, they would have technology much greater than ours and would have much to teach us. They may have found cures for all our diseases, and maybe they have found a way to achieve true and lasting peace. If they would offer us anything, we will need to be willing to learn what they know and open to changing what we think about our place in the universe.

I have hope that they are benevolent, something like Klaatu from the film The Day the Earth Stood Still. These aliens could also warn us of the great danger we face with our nuclear weapons and give us an incentive to disarm. Klaatu was a kind fellow who kept his robot Gort from annihilating the planet, so we would have to hope for this kind of visitor.

We could also hope for an alien like the one from E.T. the Extra-Terrestial who came to learn about our planet and ended up teaching humans about life. It may be wishful thinking that the aliens would be as gentle as E.T. or kind as Klaatu, but I also believe that they have learned over thousands (and perhaps millions) of years of civilization what needs to be done for their species to not only flourish but to survive. Hopefully, they would want to share this knowledge with us.

Aliens Could Also Be a Bad Thing

There is, of course, the possibility that aliens could not be friendly types. Think of the aliens in It! The Terror from Beyond Space or The Thing, and you will get the feeling that our planet will be in great danger. Perhaps the threat of malevolent aliens will be the incentive for the countries of this planet to finally work together to save humanity from something that could destroy the it.

Aliens Are a Bit Like Santa Claus

My feeling is that aliens can see us when we’re sleeping and know when we’re awake, and they don’t want us to see them. I believe they have been coming here for a long time, studying us since we were crawling in and out of caves. For some unknown reason, they seem to have rules of engagement when it comes to dealing with humans. They must have to remain clandestine and not contact us as they follow these rules. Perhaps it is rogue aliens who go off and let themselves get seen by humans, or teenage ones that borrow the keys to Mom and Dad’s flying saucer and buzz housetops during joyrides.

I know for certain that there is so much about space and time we have to learn, and I believe many of us would be willing students if aliens came and were open to being our teachers. My feeling is they could help us with every problem that our world faces, but there may be those who are leery of aliens or want to get them before they get us.

We Must Be Gracious Hosts if Aliens Reveal Themselves

In The Day the Earth Stood Still the alien Klaatu brings a gift of peace and ends up getting shot for his gesture. This is not a way to treat guests – alien or otherwise. We must be careful if they ever reveal themselves to be good hosts because it is the proper thing to do. It is also good to remember that, if they came this far, they have technology way greater than ours and probably could reduce Earth to a cinder in a matter of seconds.

In the film there is the suggestion made that, if Klaatu wanted, he could have destroyed the entire planet. As he leaves the Earth, Klaatu warns the leaders of the world to find a way to peace and not to bring war into outer space, for that there will be serious consequences.

Aliens are probably carefully monitoring us and our technological progress. Maybe they also enjoy watching us – perhaps they have reality TV shows like Keeping Up with the Humans that help them in their study of earthlings. I am certain that we are sometimes entertaining to observe but, at other times, human behavior could even shock or dismay them.

Still, no matter what we do, they appear to keep to some kind of compact to avoid messing in our affairs, sort of like the Prime Directive in Star Trek. If they have been watching us for a long time and have observed our successes and failures, especially our seemingly unending military conflicts, I do wonder if they will ever intervene.

Thinking about it, I fear that their intervention will mean it is too late for us. Hopefully, it will never have to come to that because that will not mean aliens sharing their technology and knowledge of the universe with us, but instead dealing with Earth as if it were cancerous and needed to be removed for the health of the rest of the galaxy. Let’s hope it never has to come to that.  

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi – The Force Is Strong With This One

Director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth installment of the film series, is visually stunning, with an array of dazzling colors, frighteningly gorgeous explosions, and magnificent vistas of land and water. There are also the grand and silent expanses of space, so still and peaceful until filled with enemy combatants, reminding us that wars (star ones and otherwise) wreak havoc no matter where they occur.

But beyond the sheer visual majesty of the film, there is the human element that is simple yet profound. As always at the heart of any Star Wars film is the eternal struggle of good and evil, with evidence of the gray area in between that either side can visit and exploit. If Star Wars: The Force Awakens can be considered an invigoration of this film series, The Last Jedi makes a case for being one of the best of the bunch by bringing things back to basics – especially revisiting the Skywalker family that has been at the heart of all eight films.

In The Force Awakens it was a chance for Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to take center stage, and this time it falls to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to step forward. If you are expecting to see Luke be something like the starry-eyed farm boy who wanted to rush off to Toshi Station to get some power converters, you will be very disappointed. This incarnation of Luke is grizzled and gritty, with shades of Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) from A New Hope but a more cantankerous and dark version. Purposefully making himself an outcast on a remote island near the ruins of the first Jedi temple, Luke’s not looking after anyone as Obi-wan did with him on Tatooine; rather, he has gone to this isolated place to live out his years in isolation and die.

The arrival of Rey (Daisy Ridley) holding Luke’s father’s lightsaber in hand (you know, good old Darth Vader) is at first an annoyance for Luke, but as their tempestuous relationship evolves it becomes one of teacher and student, albeit one far different than Obi-wan and the young Skywalker. As Luke sees Rey’s inherent power, it frightens him to think about what could happen because, as Yoda saw in his father, there is a darkness in Rey that may blossom if left unchecked.

There is, of course, the by now familiar story line of the Resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) trying to outrun the First Order led by her son Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). It is both comforting and unsettling to watch Fisher’s scenes knowing that she is no longer with us, but her gutsy performance is the essence of what her character has always been. Force sensitive without having Luke’s raw power, Leia is perhaps the most important Skywalker in that she has been able to harness the Force to lead others in the fight against evil; however, her rag-tag rebels are fleeing because they have been decimated by the First Order and seem to be on the brink of extinction, so things are not looking good for her or her followers.

Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and Finn (John Boyega) are back along with adorable robot BB-8. Add new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to the mix, and this trio attempts to engage in a dangerous mission behind Leia’s back to disable the enemy’s tracking device in order for the rebel forces to escape. Of course, this involves Finn heading back to his old stomping grounds on an enemy vessel and puts him on a collision course for a showdown with his former tormentor, the chrome-armored Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).

On the enemy side we see the bickering between General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo as they each seek to win favor with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). This time around they are all aboard Snoke’s ship, and we get to see Snoke in person. In contrast to the way Luke and Rey are interacting, Snoke admonishes Kylo and pronounces him as unready to be what Kylo always wanted to be – the next Darth Vader – and belittles him for wearing a mask, calling it “that ridiculous thing.” It becomes clear that Snoke is trying to push Kylo over the edge, and a subsequent scene when Kylo destroys his mask in an elevator captures the frustration of the student of an unappreciative master.

Another story line has Kylo and Rey connecting over time and space through the Force, with each being able to “see” the other despite great distances. Their connection is enticing as it is frustrating – Kylo knows that she is with Luke and we wonder about his ulterior motives – but there also seems to be an emotional and dare I say a possibly romantic connection evolving. A scene with the bare-chested Kylo causing a reaction in Rey is both hilarious and disturbing. 

Relationships are key in this film and the one between Luke and Rey carries the most weight. As secrets are revealed and dark memories revisited, the element at the center of all the movies in the series gets clarified and in some ways redefined – the Force is much more than we ever imagined and not merely a Jedi religion. The Force cannot end if the Jedi and Sith perish – the Force is forever. It is dark and light and everything in between and holds the universe together, but the dark side is insidiously alluring. Luke tries to clarify this for Rey before it is too late, knowing that Kylo is trying to pull her away from the light.

Prepare to get emotional throughout the movie, especially during key moments between Luke and R2-D2, Leia and Rey, and Luke and Leia. When Luke tries to tell R2 off about going back and helping his sister and the Resistance, the plucky little droid shows him the holographic message from A New Hope when Leia put the Death Star plans into R2 and told Obi-wan that he was her only hope. Leia and Rey have a connection that no doubt is entwined with the Force, and it seems as if Leia can be the maternal figure Rey has always wanted and needed. One of the most touching scenes will bring tears to the eyes as Luke and Leia reunite and find some closure after so many years.

One of the most enduring elements of the Star Wars films has been its music, and John Williams is back to once again enrich the film with his luxurious score. There are many scenes that are intensified with appropriate music at just the right moment, and I seriously doubt that anyone will be without a lump in his or her throat as Luke stares at a sunset and the music wells similarly as to when he looked at the sunset on Tatooine so many years ago in A New Hope. The stark visual beauty of that scene and so many others in the film is astounding, with cinematographer Steve Yedlin being partners in crime with Williams to truly enhance the viewing experience.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is not only a better film than its predecessor, but stands with The Empire Strikes Back as the best in the series. It is also a tribute to the imagination of George Lucas, whose original characters and story of the Skywalker family continues to resonate 40 years after it all began. We still care about Luke, Leia, R2, and C-3P0, and the same can now be said of this new generation of characters – Rey, Poe, Finn, and BB-8.

The Force Awakens left us with more questions than answers. The Last Jedi brings us to a definitive ending and answers some questions but sometimes not in ways we had hoped, and new ones arise to leave us scratching our heads and wanting to know more. One that stands out concerns the Force-sensitive kid that Finn and Rose meet on the planet Canto Bight. Is this the face of a new Jedi in the making and the future hope of the rebels? Perhaps the trilogy Rian Johnson is bringing to us after Episode IX will provide the answers.

The Last Jedi is a beautiful, gruesome, sometimes comical film, with space and land battles, strange new creatures like the Porgs – Chewbacca’s new best friends – and the emotional heft to keep us watching (and not looking at our watches) for two and a half hours – I was amazed how quickly it went. 

In the end, after you assess all that you have experienced, you will be enthralled and overwhelmed. More importantly, like a most thrilling theme park ride, you will want to jump on board and experience it again.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is highly recommended, but be aware if you are considering taking younger children to see the film that it earns its PG-13 rating for violence and some scenes that may be emotionally upsetting.