Some Thoughts on Episode VII

A Few Thoughts on Episode VII

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

I think it’s fair to say that The Force Awakens is probably the best Star Wars movie we could have hoped to see from JJ Abrams. That is, it’s a competent, entertaining film that plays it safe, hitting familiar beats intended to please fans, while managing to avoid committing any grievous errors. However, the cost of playing it safe is that it doesn’t take any real risks, doesn’t add anything truly new to the saga. There’s a fine line between parallel storytelling and merely retreading old ground that has already been explored in a previous film or six.

At times this is taken to an extreme; there’s something deeply disappointing about finding out that after everything that they’ve been through, Han and Chewie are basically back to where they started in A New Hope. The First Order is essentially a fledgling version of the Empire, just with marginally different uniforms. Even their leader, seen only as a giant-sized hologram (or perhaps he is actually giant-sized – that would be different!) shares many similarities with the Emperor, both visually and in his role in the story. This time around, instead of a Death Star, we have… a Starkiller. As the film explains, there’s really no comparison between the two; you see, the Starkiller is much, MUCH bigger than a Death Star. Like, forget moons, this thing’s as big as an entire planet even! Oh, and it’s so enormously powerful that it can blow up FIVE planets at once. Let’s see your puny little Death Star do THAT! Even Kylo Ren, who begins as a powerful, intimidating presence, falls victim to retreading and more or less degenerates into a petulant brat with anger-management issues by the end of the movie, evoking the worst characteristics of his grandfather. And by “worst characteristics” I don’t mean moral failings that help create a compelling villain who we can empathize with on some level; I mean characteristics that make us want to roll our eyes. Perhaps this was Abrams throwing a bone to the people out there who genuinely enjoy the prequels and the spectacle of an angst-ridden Anakin Skywalker.

“Virtuoso” is the word that comes to mind for a one-word description of JJ Abrams as a director; there is no doubt that he possesses a high degree of technical ability and talent. And while I don’t think any of his work is bad, I have never experienced any of it as rising above the level of technical excellence to qualify as a true artistic achievement, or which at least manages to be profound on some level. It’s the difference between a twelve-year-old hitting the correct buttons to bang out “Through the Fire and Flames” on Guitar Hero and Herman Li and Sam Totman pouring their hearts into shredding their solos.

With The Force Awakens, Abrams seems to be taking a page from his second movie from that other immensely popular sci-fi series. The Kirk-Kahn story arc was fantastic; what could possibly have been gained by trying to retell it in a slightly different way – furthermore, retelling it without the strength of the existing relationship between Kirk and Kahn providing backstory and depth for The Wrath of Khan? Seriously, if you’re going to reboot the original Star Trek with a new continuity and timeline, why squander the opportunity to go in new directions and tell new stories? I can’t help but wonder if some of this is what was going on in The Force Awakens; homages are fine, even expected even in a movie like this, but for the love of the Force, give us something more interesting than a lightsaber with a cross-guard.

I realize that my opinion of The Force Awakens is probably coming across as overly negative. While I did find some of callbacks and references to the previous movies to be too much at times, the truth is that I actually did quite enjoy it and I think that it’s a pretty good movie overall – good, not great, but not just good in comparison to the prequels, but pretty good judged on its own merits. I’m not the biggest Star Wars fan, but any criticism I have of this film is based on a love for Star Wars and a desire to see future movies be great movies.

Perhaps this is what the saga needed at this point: a well-made, entertaining, movie that showed, after the disappointment of the prequels, that it’s still possible to make a Star Wars that’s fun and which recaptures some of the excitement and adventure of the originals; a movie to restore the faith of the die-hard fans, and have a broad enough appeal for those who aren’t die-hard fans, setting up for a glorious second act from Rian Johnson, with some people speculating that Episode VIII will be the Empire Strikes Back of this new trilogy. If this was one of the driving intents behind The Force Awakens, then it meant this film would have to play it safe, hitting the notes that fans were expecting, but not venturing too far into unknown territory. At the risk of damning with faint praise, if this is indeed the case, then there was perhaps no better director for this film than JJ Abrams.

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Lulzbot Taz Mini Review for N00bs

I’ve had a great experience thus far printing pieces from Fat Dragon Games’ Dragonlock line of modular dungeon pieces, due to the quality of the 3D models, but also due in no small part to my Lulzbot Taz Mini. It’s the third printer I’ve owned and the one that’s proven to be the most reliable by far, even beating out a more well-known, much more expensive printer that I own which has a strong (and I’m beginning to suspect, undeserved) reputation for quality. In fairness, that other printer does produce very high-quality prints when it works properly; but under-extrusion is far too common, and God help you if ever need to change out its hot end…

Out of the box, Lulzbot nails the user-friendly experience, guiding you through setup, your first print, and getting you ready to move on to experimenting on your own. Other 3D printer manufacturers, take note: this is how it’s done. The user manual and setup guide are printed on thick, high-quality paper, an unnecessary luxury to be sure, but one that subtly conveys the feeling that you’re working with a product made by people who are really good at what they do. Experienced users will likely have no need for much of the information that’s presented, but new users will appreciate how clearly and methodically everything is spelled out in the instructions. Also included is about a meter of filament, just enough to complete your very first print.

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Everyone’s favorite cephalopod mascot: the rocktopus. Rock on!

For those who are not 3D printer enthusiasts (or who, like me, desire to be but lack the mechanical aptitude), the Taz Mini is the closest thing to a consumer-level, plug-and-play printer on the market at this point. It has a self-cleaning nozzle, and a heated, auto-leveling bed (practically worth the price of admission alone!), covered in a PEI sheet. The PEI sheet has remarkable properties that create strong bed adhesion once it gets up to temperature, eliminating the need for glue, Kapton tape, or hair spray, but allows finished pieces to practically slide off once it’s cooled down.

Another strong point in the Taz Mini’s favor is that from everything I’ve heard and from my own experience, Aleph Objects (the folks behind Lulzbot) seems like an awesome company, providing excellent customer service and utilizing open-source technology as much as possible. Their service reps are helpful and enthusiastic over the phone, and they even went as far as replacing my ruined hot end at no cost to me except for shipping them the defective part. Bonus points for coolness: many of the parts on their printers are 3D-printed themselves, and they have a farm of their machines constantly at work printing out more, essentially replicating themselves. We’ll be fine provided they never become sentient.

The two biggest drawbacks to the Taz Mini are that it needs to be tethered to a computer for the duration of the print and its relatively small print size of 152mm x 152mm x 158mm (6in x6in x 6.2in). The price is in the mid-range for consumer-level printers, so these are probably concessions that had to be made in order to help keep the cost down. The Taz 5, which I have not personally used but which has great reviews, has a much bigger print bed and is a stand-alone. Of course, these benefits are reflected in the price. Furthermore, it lacks the auto-leveling and self-cleaning features of the Mini, which I strongly suspect that the Taz 6 will add. It’s also worth mentioning that even for a 3D printer, the Taz Mini runs a little loud. Not so much as to drown out nearby conversation, but enough that it can be difficult for the sounds it makes to just fade into background noise.

The Taz Mini has proven to be a reliable machine that produces excellent-quality prints. Its features and ease-of-use make it a great choice for a first step into the world of 3D printing, or for more experienced users who are more interested in simply printing rather than tinkering with the machine itself. It should be noted that its accessibility does not mean that it will limit you as you become more proficient with 3D printing. Lulzbot has developed their own version of Cura which has simplified print settings for beginners as well as advanced settings that allow you to really get under the hood.

Aleph Objects recommends using HIPS (High Impact Polystyrene, aka, plastic) with this printer. The problem I had with the ruined hot end only happened when I attempted to use cheap PLA (Polylactic acid, an organic-based filament) that I had gotten from an eBay seller. I had used HIPS before that with no problems and have had no problems since getting the replacement hot end and switching back to HIPS – which was, incidentally, also purchased at a cheap price from an eBay seller. So, it’s unclear if the problem I had was due to defective filament, error on my part, or some other factor. I may attempt to use PLA again or some other filament in the future, but for now, I think I’ll play it safe and print out more Dragonlock pieces in plain old white HIPS.

***UPDATE 5/24/16***
Since posting this, I’ve added two additional Minis to my print farm, with continued excellent performance and reliability. More importantly, I tempted fate and attempted to once again print using cheap PLA purchased from eBay. I’m happy to report that I’ve had excellent results. I’m not exactly sure what happened that caused the first print head to jam, but I’ve been using PLA for over a month and haven’t had any problems with it.

HIPS is still a good choice, but PLA has several advantages that make it my material of choice. The price point is about the same as HIPS, plus there are many more choices for colors available. More significantly, the print head and bed temperatures are lower than with HIPS, which means it takes less time for the printer to get up to temperature and start printing. Adhesion to the PEI sheet is even better than with HIPS. Because the Mini is not enclosed, I would often experience corners of larger pieces lifting off of the bed, which wasn’t really a problem for the things I normally applications (terrain pieces). However, this is something that rarely occurs using PLA.

Actually, the adhesion almost seems too good sometimes. Whereas the pieces printed in HIPS would literally detach themselves from the bed once it cooled down a little bit, the PLA pieces stay firmly in place until the bed cools down to at least 29 degrees C, and sometimes even lower. However, I’ll take this “problem” over failed or warped prints any day. Bottom line, I love the Mini more and more the longer I use it!

Some Thoughts on the “Rogue Cut”

I rarely do any shopping on Black Friday anymore, with one exception: movies. I’ll typically head out to Best Buy and then Target late-morning after the crowds have mostly subsided, searching for a few specific titles that were in their ads, but also eager to find out what hidden treasures lie in wait on the shelves. Mad Max: Fury Road on blu-ray for eight bucks?!? Yes, please!

Last week, I added seven new movies to my collection, most of them costing eight dollars or less: five movies I wanted to see, plus one each for the wife and the kid for Christmas. That probably sounds more selfish than it actually is; my wife and I typically enjoy the same types of movies, so even when I buy one I’m interested in seeing, we will almost invariably watch it together. The other two movies are ones that we’ll watch as a family, but they’re not ones that I have any personal interest in seeing.

The most recent one my wife and I watched from my Black Friday excursion is the “Rogue Cut” of X-Men: Days of Future Past. I’m assuming that if you’re reading my thoughts on a re-cut of a movie that’s already been available to own for over a year, there’s not much left to spoil for you, so I’m going to speak freely.

I don’t usually don’t get terribly excited about director’s cuts of films, but I like DOFP so much that I thought it would be worth it for the Black Friday price. “Rogue Cut” turns out to be quite a clever play on words. Rogue does have more screen time in this version, appearing in the dystopian future, not just in the redeemed future at the end. But there are several other features that make this a “rogue” version of the theatrical release. For example, there are tweaks and changes to many scenes, oftentimes several seconds of additional footage where the scene previously ended, and a few instances where brief snippets of dialogue were seamlessly spliced into the middle of already existing dialogue.

Most of the time, it was clear why the additional footage was originally cut; there was only one instance where I felt that any of it enhanced the scene (although I can’t recall it at the moment, so maybe the improvement wasn’t that significant). None of the extra footage was bad, per se, but it almost always felt unnecessary, slowing the pace and dulling the crispness of the scenes as presented in their theatrical version. And what’s with the lingering shot of the World Trade Center? We already know that Wolverine went back to 1973; showing the towers doesn’t do anything to reinforce that knowledge or have anything to do with the plot or characters and only serves to focus the viewer’s attention on something unrelated to the movie.

In addition to the new and altered sequences involving Rogue (more on this later), another significant change in the action involves Mystique’s return to the mansion. Rather than breaking in, this time she knocks on the front door, seemingly having taken Charles’ words to heart and deciding not to go through with killing Trask after all. She takes some time to reconnect with and seduce Beast before proceeding to sabotage Cerebro. Extending this sequence adds little to the story except to make it feel clumsier and more bloated than the theatrical cut which managed to keep things moving here at a brisk pace with a few lines of dialogue instead.

Rogue’s increased presence (if it can honestly be called “presence” and not merely “screen time”) in the film unfortunately carries about the same amount of weight as the added footage involving Mystique. It’s fun to see Rogue in the future (even a dystopian one) alongside the futuristic versions of the other characters, but does her presence actually contribute anything meaningful to the story? Plotwise, she was rescued in order to stand in for Kitty Pryde by absorbing her time-traveling/projecting powers after Wolverine accidentally wounded Kitty. But it all seems shoehorned and shallow, as if the true purpose of including her was for the sake of her having a larger role in the story, not because the story needed her.

As with “presence,” it is probably generous to describe her as having a “role” in the story due to how passive she was; she exists more as a plot device than as a character. To top it off, Bobby’s (Iceman’s) death during her rescue seemed more of a means of ticking boxes on the storytelling checklist than a moment that evoked much pathos. (“The stakes are too high and this mission is too dangerous to have the heroes escape without paying some sort of price; we have to kill at least one of them to make it believable!”)

The juxtaposition of Magneto breaking into the mansion to rescue Rogue with the scene set in the past where he breaks into the facility to retrieve his helmet is well-executed on a technical level, but this does not alleviate the fact that Rogue’s presence doesn’t add much to the story. It was a wise decision to forego her inclusion in the theatrical release, having a wounded Kitty endure instead. The one possible improvement this sequence makes to the movie is that it shows how the sentinels were able to locate the mutants’ hideout. However, it didn’t seem like they ever had any problems finding them before, so again, unnecessary.

Additionally, introducing a future-Rogue who still has her powers raises a question about the continuity from the first films to DOFP: why does Rogue have her powers in the future when she chose to receive the mutation vaccine at the end of X3? Of course, one could argue that there are other questions about continuity that exist (even in the theatrical version), the most obvious one being what Professor X and Magneto are doing in the future, alive and with their powers at full strength, again, given the events of X3. A possible counterargument is that the post-denouement in that film suggests that even some of the most – ahem—, shattering events that took place in that movie could be undone. However, the real explanation might simply be that Brian Singer and company decided to undo the worst parts of X3, which is accomplished quite nicely by the rapturous ending of DOFP.

Releasing another version of a movie allows the creators another shot at making their film even better. A studio can certainly use it as nothing more than as a callous means to double-dip from their fans’ wallets; but if done right, it can be worth the double-dipping – or worth the wait if you’re like me and don’t buy the first release of a movie if you know there’s an extended edition coming. The extended editions of the Lord of the Rings films remain the gold standard by which to measure extended editions/director’s cuts of movies. Very little of the additional footage was superfluous, a great deal of it enhanced the story, and it wasn’t until the extended edition of Return of the King that any of the new material noticeably detracted from their quality – and these editions added about a half hour running time each to films that were already pushing three hours or more! Sadly, in the case of the “Rogue Cut,” more does not equate with better.

So, is the “Rogue Cut” is worth owning? Well, the blu-ray package includes both versions of the film, not to mention a director’s commentary which the original release lacks. So, if you don’t own DOFP yet, there’s no reason to opt for the original over the “Rogue Cut”. If you already have the original, it would be hard to justify an additional purchase, especially since the theatrical version is superior. Maybe if you’re a real die-hard X-Men fan and want to see everything there is, or if you really, really, like commentaries (as I do). As for myself, seeing DOFP in the theater was the tipping point for me finally getting a blu-ray player (yeah, I tend to lag a few years behind with technology). I thought the “Rogue Cut” sounded interesting when I first heard about it, but as much as I like DOFP, I had not intended on buying a copy of the “Rogue Cut” until the moment I found it on a store shelf at a bargain price on Black Friday.