Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Why The Force Awakens is the Star Wars movie we've been looking for

I'm not sure if you guys have heard about this, but there's a new Star Wars movie out.

I don't usually talk about big Hollywood blockbusters on my blog, because what am I going to add? Go read Rottentomatoes or something. But this is different. I grew up with the original trilogy, and after the disappointing prequels, I was still left aching for a new movie that really "felt" like Star Wars. This is personal for me.

So first things first: The Force Awakens is AWESOME. It's everything I want in a Star Wars movie, and probably more.

I've noticed not everybody shares this opinion, though, and that's just unacceptable. I'm not sure, but it seems to me that there's something of a generational split here. So let me list the reasons why this is a great Star Wars film.

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

1. Rey. Hey, did you know Luke Skywalker was originally supposed to be a girl? Anyone who's bitching about Rey being female (really? in 2015?) needs to shut up. And I don't know where they've been hiding Daisy Ridley - so much charisma, and just the right balance of strength and femininity. If the entire story arc of these films ends up being mainly about her, I'm completely on board. (Yeah I like Finn, but this feels like her story.)

Oh, also, she's definitely Luke's daughter.

2. Kylo Ren. Such a contrast to Darth Vader's perfected Sith-ness, Kylo Ren is an imperfect, developing villain - a wannabe gangster who's prone to temper tantrums and has limited command of the Force. Even his saber-building skills seem questionable - only his own saber glows with that "dirty" light that looks more like fire, which suggests that he just doesn't really know how to build them right. This is all a lot more interesting at this stage of the game than if he was an unbeatable Vader-like badass.

Some people have complained that he's basically Annakin II, but the big difference here is Hayden Christensen vs. Adam Driver. Also, Annakin's character was a whiny little weasel-man who was nevertheless really good at being a Jedi/Sith. Kylo Ren talks a good game and looks the part, but he is currently very bad at his job. They're complete opposites, in fact. (But, you know, Vader is his grandfather, so... a little similarity is pretty understandable.)

3. The OG cast. I admit, I teared up a bit when I saw Han and Leia together again. And somehow, Harrison Ford looks younger than he did in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. He slipped right back into the role of Han Solo - older, hopefully wiser, but still snippy, wisecracking and swashbuckling when he needs to be. And while his fate made me sad, this was still basically Han Solo's movie - and that was an unexpected treat. Meanwhile, Carrie Fisher didn't do a whole lot but her presence is pure fanservice, and there's nothing wrong with that. Mark Hamill had very little screen time (and no lines!) but man, he made the most of what he got. What a moment for him!

4. The First Order. What a bunch of incompetent fools! And that's great. This is not the Empire - this is a cult of terrorists trying to copy what they know of the Empire, and getting a lot of it wrong. It's a parallel to ISIS, Al Qaeda or other real-life terrorist cults. Lucky for them, the New Republic has demilitarized since the fall of the Empire, so it's not strong enough to crush the First Order outright. But both sides are having to re-learn everything about war - and that makes total sense at this point in the overall story.

I've seen plenty of people elsewhere online who just do not get this. They think the First Order is the Empire by another name, they don't understand why they seem like such idiots (including Kylo Ren). But not only would that be uninteresting (we've, uh, seen the Empire before, guys), it also just wouldn't be any fun if the bad guys were an impenetrable wall of death for the protagonists, who themselves were just minding their own business before stumbling into the story. None of these people are well trained, and half the fun of the movie is seeing them try their best to fight.

This is also why I have no problem with what amounts to a third Death Star. The entire point is that the First Order is (clumsily) trying to do exactly what the Empire did!

5. Mysteries are back! One of the great things about the original trilogy was that it didn't explain everything. What were the Clone Wars? How did Annakin get turned to the dark side? What is the Force, anyway? Nobody ever really explained these things, and they didn't need to - that let us have something to chew on after the movie ended. In The Force Awakens, 30+ years have passed and we only get glimpses (both literal and figurative) of things that happened in that time. We're left with a lot of questions - what actually happened between Kylo Ren and Luke? How did Han and Leia split up? Where does the First Order get its money?? Some of the backstory will no doubt be fleshed out in the next films, but some probably won't - and that's totally okay.

6. Emotion is back! The original trilogy were highly emotional films - Obi-Wan's death, Darth Vader's big reveal to Luke, the final removal of his mask, etc. All of that was gone in the prequels, which had scripts that felt like a checklist (but tried really hard to force some emotion right at the end, long after we'd stopped caring). But there were at least three points in The Force Awakens that got me choked up, and all throughout I really cared about these characters because they all seem so human. I also thought the ending was the most emotional moment of the entire series so far. Even the saber battles finally felt meaningful again - and it's that meaning that gives them weight, not how flashy or fast they are.

7. A sense of perspective. The prequels tried really hard to be sweeping epics, with a huge cast and a ton of stuff going on in every frame. But The Force Awakens has downsized the series to what it once was - the story of a few iconic characters with a ragtag fleet just trying not to get blown up. At the start of the movie, the entire "Resistance" fleet seems to consist of about 30 X-Wing fighters, plus (eventually) the Millennium Falcon. Meanwhile, the First Order controls just one planet, and while their presence does strike fear at least within their own star system, it's not because of sheer numbers but because they have a habit of torching entire towns as soon as they arrive.

And remember how in the original Star Wars, the Empire sent just four TIE Fighters against Luke and the Millenium Falcon, despite he and the stolen Death Star plans being the most important things in the universe to them? Plenty of moments like that in TFA too. You don't get the sense that anyone has unlimited resources like you did in the prequels. And it's a lot easier to care about what's going on, because every person and even every piece of equipment you see is important.

8. Real sets, characters and props. Go ahead and watch the prequels again - they look and feel like cartoons. Nothing looks real. And hardly anything was - even basic sets were almost all CGI, with much of each movie shot against full green screen. But in The Force Awakens, while there's still plenty of CGI, stuff that "should" be real is real. If an X-Wing is sitting on the ground in a shot, there is an X-Wing sitting on the ground on the set. When Kylo Ren drops his helmet, it clangs on the ground, because it's made of thick metal and it's heavy! The whole movie feels real as a result.

9. Acknowledgment of the fans. George Lucas eventually got to a point where he seemed to enjoy torturing long-time fans of the series - he hated the people that made him a multi-millionaire. The prequels were basically a giant "fuck you" to all of us, and even the original trilogy was made worse over the years in the name of Lucas' own vanity.

But JJ Abrams is one of those fans, and he's given us basically exactly what we've been asking for all these years. This series is fun again. It feels like it was made for an actual audience, not for Lucas' own personal collection as a joyless, soulless old man.

I did feel like the pacing was a little inconsistent at times - the final shot was pretty damn impactful but the ending scene itself felt tacked on until that very last moment. Events prior to it should maybe have not dragged on so long (which made that feel like the ending, and the actual ending an epilogue). In general, it is a long movie and it probably could have been tightened up in several scenes.

But goddamn, I still want to see it again. And I'm excited for whatever's coming next.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Amtrak's Southwest Chief, and going the distance by train

Took me almost a year but I've finally gotten around to editing and posting what video I shot last February aboard Amtrak's Southwest Chief traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles. Compare and contrast with my video from Japan's Cassiopeia!

I've traveled long distance on Amtrak since the 1970's; I grew up with it, and still love it. People nowadays ask me "you can still do that?" Which is a little sad. Everybody's in such a rush. The world would be a better place if we all slowed down a little.

I think my video conveys how relaxing a trip like this is. And despite what you'd think, it never gets boring. You can always get up and walk around, and there's always something new to see. But mostly, it's just hypnotic - the sights, sounds and rhythms of the train put you in a pleasant trance-like state that eliminates any requirement for external entertainment. Your attention span stretches out on a train like this.

I've ridden quite a few of Amtrak's long haul trains for someone who's not really a "trainspotter" (I'm not intentionally trying to "collect" all the different routes):
  • Capitol Limited
  • Broadway Limited
  • Lake Shore Limited
  • Cardinal
  • Palmetto
  • Silver Star
  • Crescent
  • San Francisco Zephyr
  • California Zephyr
  • Empire Builder
  • Southwest Limited
  • Southwest Chief
The Southwest Limited, mid 1970's

I've also ridden every kind of Amtrak equipment imaginable. My favorite thing about Amtrak in the 1970's was that it was like a rolling museum - the "heritage" equipment was old and half-broken, yeah, but it was always really comfortable and walking through the train, you never knew what you were going to find when you opened the door to the next car.

One of my favorite equipment memories is walking into a lounge car on the Crescent and seeing a baby grand piano sitting on a raised platform in the middle of the car, just past the bar (which was closed). No one was playing it and nobody else was in the car, which was also really strange. Some longer trains in those days ran with two lounges but this train had a new Amfleet cafe car for snacks, so the second but far more interesting lounge car was being deprecated. It was a ghost car with a grand piano in it.

Crescent dome car with Southern Railway still in control - the Amtrak car is being pulled as part of a through-running agreement. Amtrak also pulled a Southern car on one of its routes.
(I later rode the Amtrak version of this same train.)

Another amazing memory was riding coach on the Broadway Limited, being lucky enough to sit in an ex-Santa Fe 40 seater and literally not being able to touch the seat in front of me with my feet. I was 6'4" even at that time, so that's something. Some of those old cars gave you an almost absurd amount of space. The car looked unfinished, like there were seats missing. I remember taking pictures of this but I probably lost them over the years.

On the Capitol Limited, I rode the dome car at night and I was the only person in that car. There was something really special about sitting up in the dome, in what was literally my own private bubble above the train, in the total darkness and silence, watching as we carved our way through the small towns of the mid-Atlantic. I also remember that car (and those tracks) being some of the smoothest riding I've ever had on a train. It felt like we weren't even moving.

Back on the Broadway Limited, I was lucky enough to ride a slumbercoach several times (the link is not mine, but I was amazed to find a newly-posted video of a slumbercoach interior). This was one of Amtrak's only (or the only?) routes that had these, because only a few were ever built for the private railroads. The slumbercoach was a small seat in a tiny room, but it was private and it turned into a bed at night, and it also had its own toilet. The added fare was only something like $30 over coach - totally worth it! I wish they'd bring this concept back.

Over time, Amtrak's trains have become a little more homogenized, though the experience is still the same minus the equipment crapshoot. It's surprising how similar riding now is to riding 30 years ago.

My Cassiopeia ride was a little different - a little "busier", not quite as relaxing. Japan's a different place. But still, night time on any sleeper train is something special, with the ghostly sounds of the train, the gentle rocking, and the vague feeling of motion as you sleep. It almost seems to tap in to some pre-birth memories we all have locked away.

In a little while, my wife and I will be taking the Silver Meteor from Fort Lauderdale back to New York. I can't wait.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

New Guitar Day: 1966 Fender Mustang!

Meet the newest member of our family! This is actually a bit belated - I bought this and then immediately jetted off to Japan, and I've just been swamped ever since. But I can't not write about it.

This is my first vintage Fender - a 1966 Mustang:

All original except for the missing tremolo bar (I've since replaced it with a modern one) and input jack. The previous owner kept that in a little baggie so I at least still have it. The tremolo did at least still have its original set screw, so all I needed to do was plug in a new trem bar and lock it in.

This guitar has been well used but not abused - exactly what you want to see in a vintage guitar. The seller was selling it for her son, who she said is a big Mustang fan and owns a bunch more. He obviously loved this one - it's been played a lot and has great wear but it's been taken well care of.

Just look at that freakin' finish checking. This thing has it throughout the entire guitar. It's amazing!

I've honestly never seen such perfect checking.

I know how checking in general happens (expansion and contraction of the wood) but I've never really understood how this particular pattern happens to the backs of headstocks. This isn't uncommon, but it's always weird! Nature is not supposed to move at 90 degree angles like that.

The decal is still in pretty much factory shape. I know some don't mind worn decals, but I really like it when they're well preserved.

The neck, fretboard and frets are in great playing condition. The frets are a bit low but still feel fine. I polished them up and they're like mirrors now. No divots, no roughness. This thing is like butter.

One thing I never realized is how subtle vintage pearloid is. I've got a modern Jazz Bass with a pearloid pickguard (oops, never did do a New Bass Day post for that one) and it's got a lot more contrast. Of course it's whiter too. The light is affecting these photos a little bit, but this pickguard definitely is a bit yellower than it probably was when new. It's also shrunk a tiny bit, but there's no cracking or warping.

It's a little hard to see in these photos but this guard is also quite thick, and it's got this amazing hand cut look to it. I don't know how they actually cut these in 1966, but it's got a slight roughness to the edge, and curves that aren't entirely precise. But that gives it a little more of an organic look to me. It's not a computer-guided, laser-cut piece of plastic like modern pickguards (probably) are.

One part that's basically at the end of its useful life: the nut. The slots have been dug in over the years and are way too low. I could fill them and recut, but I'd rather not do that to a vintage nut - I actually replaced this already. (Don't worry, I kept the original one and threw it in the case for safekeeping.) I'll probably do a separate post about that.

The pickups were also a little spotty when I got it - the neck basically didn't work at all unless I pressed and held the switch really hard. A little Deoxit 5 cleaned that right up, though. They work perfectly now.

Case is in beautiful shape too - looks just like how you want a 1966 case to look! Latches still work. No keys, though. If I ever took this guitar out to play, I'd probably buy a cheap modern case to do it with. These cases don't provide a hell of a lot of protection to begin with, and the guitar flops around a bit inside.

When I started looking for one of these, I actually wanted a Competition Mustang - after owning my SCANDAL Tomomi Bluetus bass, I've decided I need more competition stripes in my life. But CompStangs in the color I'm smitten with (orange with matching headstock) are quite rare and therefore expensive. I'm still on the lookout for a reissue Beck Mustang from Japan, which are virtually identical to the original orange CompStangs. I've got the vintage angle covered already, so I don't mind a reissue CompStang. I just need those stripes - they make the guitar go faster.

Nice thing about buying an original Mustang: it weighs 6.6 lbs! I can throw it around like it's nothing. That was kinda the point of these in the beginning, but I've seen later iterations (even from the late 60's and 70's) that weigh 7 or even more than 8 lbs. I've read that if you want yours light, your best chance is with one of the first iteration: that means plain red, white or blue.

I'm sure I'll be posting more about this thing in the future as I work on it. Soon: nuts!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Staying in Odaiba - my favorite part of Tokyo

I've written about Odaiba several times before - including visiting Sega Joypolis (twice), riding Leiji Matsumoto's Himiko boat, the Daikanransha ferris wheel, and eating the best ramen in the world. There's a lot to do in Odaiba!

This trip, my wife and I finally decided to stay there. We booked a room at the Oakwood Ariake - in fact a "suite", because Odaiba's far enough afield (especially the Ariake neighborhood on the "far" side of the island) that rooms are super-cheap.

We love Oakwoods because they're "apartments" rather than "hotel rooms", so you get both a full kitchen and this:

A combo washer/dryer - really handy!

This was "only" $160 per night - I know, to someone from the midwest USA that probably sounds like a lot, but in Tokyo it's kind of a bargain - about the average price for a tiny single room. Even in New York, that'd be a cheap room - and we had a separate living and sitting area, plus the kitchen and washer/dryer. Oh, and a balcony, which is something we always look for now that we're old and spoiled. The view was interesting, but for $160 per night you're not going to get the same view as the $430 per night Prince Park Hotel. (Seriously, click that link if you're not a regular at my blog - no other hotel has a view like that.)

Still, we really liked this view - it had a lot of movement. That's the Shutoko Expressway on the left, and the Yurikamome train cutting across over the top. (The Rinkai line station is the chuckwagon looking thing near the center of the photo.)

My two favorite things about Odaiba are how much there is to do for fun, and conversely just how quiet it is, with wide open spaces:

It just does not feel like what most people think of as Tokyo, even though it totally is. It's in Minato, one of the 23 special wards that make up the central city. By the way, that's our hotel in the middle left.

This wasn't at like 4 in the morning. This was dead middle of the afternoon on a weekday. Sometimes I actually kinda worry about Odaiba - it doesn't feel like there are enough people to sustain all this. But it does get crowded sometimes, in certain areas. Weekends and nights are a little more crowded in general than the daytime.

Still, it's like an oasis in an overcrowded city. Coming back to this after spending a day in "mainland" Tokyo is really relaxing. And it's still Tokyo, so you never feel unsafe even in deserted areas.

We've always avoided actually staying in Odaiba because we (along with a lot of other people) think of it as the middle of nowhere. But it has all you need - everything's just hidden. There were about ten different convenience stores surrounding our hotel, a McDonald's, and both the Rinkai and Yurikamome lines within easy walking distance. The Rinkai line is ridiculously easy to get to most tourist areas on because JR Saikyo line trains also run on it, and the Saikyo line stops in Shibuya, Shinjuku and generally parallels the Yamanote line that loops around the city, making it easy to transfer. So everything worked out even better than we expected - 20 minutes and we could be anywhere we wanted to be, and coming back at any hour, we were still able to pick up a bottle of wine or two or three between the station and our hotel.

Of course, it was also nice being able to walk to the stuff we wanted to do around the island:

Two concerts, both walking distance to our hotel. Zepp Tokyo is directly under Daikanransha:

DiverCity is one of the many malls in Odaiba - it is really American:

You may as well be in New Jersey. Oh, except for the giant Gundam right outside.

That's pretty Japanese.

Of course we had to visit my favorite ramen place anywhere:

Yottekoya is getting fancy! Every time we visit, they're a little more upscale. First time, they were a total dive, a literal hole in the wall. (That first pic at the link is their original exterior.) Now they're like a real restaurant.

I've written about this place several times before - I just cannot believe more people don't recognize its greatness. It is just consistently the best ramen I've ever had, and I've had a lot of ramen at this point, in both Tokyo and New York. Yes, it's technically part of a chain, but it's not a chain like we would think of one... each restaurant is completely different, they seem to have nothing in common but the name. The others in Tokyo have never been nearly as good as this one.

I've been to probably 30 or 40 different independent ramen shops now, including many highly rated ones. Many of them are good, and even "bad" ramen is like bad sex - it's still ramen, it can't not be awesome (well, except for Minca in NYC that made my wife physically ill). But none of them have had the melt-in-your-mouth chashu pork or the perfectly balanced broth of Yottekoya. Even their noodles are better than most, and I doubt they're even fresh. Gotta be something in the water out in Odaiba. Seriously, freakin' go here and order the tonkotsu ramen.

You may know this next place - it's one of the most iconic buildings in Odaiba:

That's the Fuji TV building. I didn't realize before that you can go up in that globe:

It's an actual observation deck. Here's part of the view:

It doesn't look very high but because Odaiba really doesn't have many tall buildings and the water's right next to it, you can get a really good view of the main parts of Tokyo.

Of course, you can also visit many of Fuji TV's sets:

(Sorry for cropping my wife there, but she's a little bashful.) That's the set of "Mezamashi TV", Fuji TV's morning show that we had actually been watching all week. It's more colorful in real life than it looks in pictures or on TV. Most sets look cheap and dull in real life, but in Japan, things are often even more amazing in reality.

The Fuji TV building's over on the other side of the island, where the Hotel Nikko, the Grand Pacific Le Daiba and the main tourist areas are (including the Statue of Liberty pictured at top). It's a little more crowded over there, and a lot more expensive to stay in one of those hotels. Not worth it. Take my advice and stay in Ariake.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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