Initial Thoughts on The Force Awakens

It’s all spoilers, people. You have been warned!

At the time of this writing, I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens twice three times: once with Beca and Annika on opening day, once with Beca and my sister-in-law on Christmas Eve, and once by myself in 3D laser projection. These are my initial thoughts after those two viewings and many hours of rumination and conversation. It’s hard for me to analyze a text I can’t readily access, so I know I’ll revisit all this stuff once the Blu-ray comes out and I can pick it apart and illustrate my points directly. Until then, here are some of my thoughts about the movie…


FN-2187: “There is a person in there.”

Finn_Profile

When Finn (then still FN-2187), sees his comrade get shot on Jakku, he bends to comfort him, and the dying trooper’s bloody had leaves red streaks on FN-2187’s helmet. During this scene, two things popped into my mind simultaneously. One was this:

 

The other was the phrase “There is a person in there.” This First Order Stormtrooper was having an existential crisis and you could see it all over his “face.” John Boyega is a very good actor to be able to pull that off as well as he does. FN is an individual, and he’s different from the other stormtroopers. The bloody handprint on his helmet is almost a visual inversion of the white hand on the faces of the Uruk-Hai in Lord of the Rings:

White Hand

Abrams marks FN with a bloody handprint, so he’s easy to spot, but we don’t need it. Boyega’s body language tells us everything we need to know. There is a second revealing moment when Finn is called “Traitor” by a stormtrooper on Takodana. If Captain Phasma is there, this is Finn’s old division, and that trooper recognizes Finn’s face, so he must be a former comrade. Stromtroopers spent time together without their armor on. There are people in there.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 8.16.27 AM


Kylo Ren: “There is a person in there.”

ren

When Kylo Ren has a hissy fit and goes nuts on a control panel with his home-made lightsaber, the same phrase popped into my mind: “There is a person in there.” Unlike Vader, who was cold and showed his displeasure by calmly choking generals to death, Kylo has a very emotional, very human freak out. It’s like seeing Spock freak out and get all emotinal duirng Pon Farr.  Just as Finn’s reactions to what is happening around him tell us that he’s different, Ren’s reactions show us that he’s emotionally unstable and does not have control over himself.


Oh no, R2-D2 has PTSD!

Artoo_Luke-closeWhen we finally see Artoo on screen, he’s under a sheet and has been in “low power mode” ever since Luke went away and “sadly may never be his old self again.” Whatever Artoo saw Kylo Ren and the Knights of Ren do to Luke’s students broke him as much as it did Luke. He has been traumatized and retreated from life rather in the face of that emotional damage.


“Oh my god, they named him Ben…”

Ben-Ren

When Han calls out to his son, and we hear his given name for the first time, it set off a cascade of emotions and echoes for me. My immediate thought was “Oh my god, they named him Ben…” a touching tribute to the man who brought Han and Leia together and watched over Luke (more on names below). But right on the heels of that was a feeling of dread. We have heard the name “Ben” called out on a “Death Star” during a daring escape before…and it did not end well. Fathers confronting sons on rickety bridges above giant chasms don’t tend to end well in Star Wars, either.

Ren holds out his lightsaber to Han after saying “I want to be free of this pain. I know what I have to do, but I don’t know if I have the strenth to do it. Will you help me?” I really thought Ren/Ben was asking Han to help him commit suicide. I thought we were going to get a further linking of the Jedi with samurai, as Han acted as kaishakunin for his own son’s act of seppuku.

Chewie_DetonatorI was shocked when Han got killed, but my catharsis didn’t happen until Chewbacca flipped out. “Oh no,” I thought “Chewbacca saw Han get killed.” Yes, I got super emotional right then. And the wound that Chewie inflicts on Ren leads to my favorite piece of business that Driver delivers during the duel in the forest: rhythmically pounding his wound as if gaining strength from it. Adam Driver is an exceptional actor.

Also, when Ren tells Han “I’m being torn apart.” it is totally this:


Rey gets the best theme

Rey_Single

I’ll admit it, I was never a huge fan of John Williams’s “Duel of the Fates” theme from Phantom Menace. Too bombastic. Too choral. Too much. But in Force Awakens, Willaims gives Rey a beautiful, layered, ultimately soaring theme that fits her perfectly. It does feel a bit Harry Potterish to me, too but in a good way.  Here, refresh your memory:

Memorable. Whistlable.


Echoes, loops and rings (but no rings on the planet explosions, thank The Maker).

Chewie Hamlet

Alas, poor Threepio!

Star Wars has always borrowed from, quoted, and played homage to a wide variety of films, movies, myths and traditions. And Star Wars has always drawn from the best stuff: Kurosawa, Dune, Shakespeare, Mœbius, David Lean, etc. and gained additional depth and meaning from this resonance with other material. The Force Awakens does this too, but from new sources…including strong references to the original Star Wars trilogy.

Mike Klimo did a great job deconstructing the visual and structural connection between the original trilogy and the prequels in his article,  RING THEORY: The Hidden Artistry of the Star Wars Prequels.  What I see happening in The Force Awakens is very different.

I don’t see rings so much as echoes. Echoes of stories that didn’t exist before Star Wars, and echoes of Star Wars itself. The presentation of Rey is a good example.

When Rey slid her way down a rope into the ruins of a star destroyer, I leaned over and whispered to Annika “She’s Nausicaä!” and the echoes of Miyazaki’s heroine are strong.

When we first meet her, Rey is hidden beneath protective clothing and gear, as is Nausicaä.

Nausicaa-Rey-Mask-horiz

Both are exploring and scavenging the ruins of an ancient battlefield.

Nausicaa-Rey-Engine-horiz

There are huge, silenced leviathans in the sand.

Destroyer-Ohm-horiz

Both Rey and Nausicaä descend into cavernous spaces, which leave each tiny in frame.

Nausicaa-Rey-hangar-horiz

And both Rey and Nausicaä team up with a small, frisky orange companion!

Rey_and_BB-Nausicaa-horiz

Rey also has clear connections to Kaylee from Firefly. At one point, when Rey is tying to get Finn to hand her a tool on the Millennium Falcon, she almost quotes Kaylee verbatim: “No. No. The one I’m pointing to.” At this point, Beca leaned over to me and said “Kaylee.”

Here is the scene from Firefly episode “Out of Gas”:

 

This scene, and multiple instances when Rey displays a deep understanding of ship mechanics, show how that there is quite a bit of Kaylee in Rey, and reminded me how much I miss Kaylee.

These echoes associate Rey with these strong women, and also serve to remind the audience that they exist. Rey is not the first, and she’s in some great company.

Just as George Lucas (and Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett) referenced the things they loved to previous Star Wars films, J.J. Abrams and Lawence Kasdan and Michael Arndt reference  things they like, some of which were themselves influenced by Star Wars (like Firefly) and some of which are…actually Star Wars.

luke_helmetThere are multiple connections between Rey and previous Star Wars movies. Echoes of Luke are the most obvious. Both grew up without their immediate families on a desert planet. In her home, Rey has a hand-made doll that looks suspiciously like Luke in an X-wing flight suit, and later she dons a dusty rebel helmet that looks almost exactly like the one Luke wears. Rey also has visions after entering a cave-like space and denies the call: “I’m never touching that thing again! I don’t want any part of this.” These could be clues that Rey is indeed Luke’s daughter, but they also signal to the audience that, like Luke, Rey is the hero.

ben_shield-midRey is also visually associated with Ben Kenobi, sneaking around the Starkiller Base, evading stormtroopers and pulling mechanical handles, much as Ben did when deactivating the shields on the Death Star. And she get’s her own “These are not the droids you’re looking for,” moment when she uses The Voice to escape a stormtrooper (played by Daniel Craig). It’s possible that Obi Wan had family too, and Rey might be part of his lineage. It would be nice to see Luke training his old master’s granddaughter.

Many critics have been complaining that The Force Awakens is just a copy of previous Star Wars movies, but I disagree. It’s why I like using the word “echoes” because echoes are a repetition of a sound, but also indicate distance from the source.


“You’re Han Solo! And you’re Han Solo! And You’re Han Solo…”

it's me

“Hey…it’s me.”

One criticism of the Star Wars prequels was the lack of a Han Solo-type character. Someone who was charismatic, resourceful, self-reliant, roguish, wise-cracking, and fun to watch. No one fit that description in Episodes I-III. Obi Wan could have (and should have), but not even Ewan McGregor’s huge charisma could bridge the gap left by those awful scripts. He tried, but couldn’t quite get there.

But, in The Force Awakens, we get our Han Solo right away. When Poe Dameron faces Kylo Ren and breaks an uncomfortable silence with: “So who talks first? You talk first? I talk first?” we clearly had our Han Solo. Check.

Then, when Finn puts on Poe’s jacket, and when Rey asks if he’s with The Resistance, he answers “Obviously. Yes I am. I’m with The Resistance. Yeah, I am with The Resistance,” it feels just like “We’re all fine. We’re fine here…how are you?” OK, so Finn is now our Han Solo. Check.

Then Rey jumps into the pilot seat of the Millennium Falcon, and flies in a very Han Solo fashion. Oh crap, , our Han Solo, too!

Everyone is Han Solo

But when the actual Han Solo shows up, it turns out that he’s a bit more complicated, and is not quite the Han Solo we used to know. Beca pointed out that he treats Chewbacca like a servant, ordering him around and even taking his gun. His wise-cracks don’t always land, and he’s reverted back to “what he’s good at,” rather than moving forward with his life.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 11.28.20 AMChewbacca, on the other hand, is his old self. Helpful, smart, affectionate and loyal. I read Han and Chewie as a mixed-age couple dealing with one spouse becoming more frail and slowing down, while the other is still young and vital and wants to keep adventuring. Because Wookiees live so long relative to humans, Han Solo was destined to grow old long before his partner did. Chewie is becoming Han’s caretaker, even making sure Han is wearing a warm coat before they head out into the snow.

If you map Han and Chewie to a long-married, May-December couple, Han’s offer to bring Rey into the family (onto the crew), would give Chewbacca a younger companion, “Chewie kinda likes you.” Of course he does. Rey is everything Han used to be…but she’s also like Luke.

Rey is almost the Kwisatz Haderach of Star Wars, with Han’s know-how and resourcefulness, but with the natural Force ability of a Skywalker. She’s a Mentat who will (hopefully) be trained in the ways of the Bene Gesserit.

When Han dies, Chewbacca is enraged and hurt, but he knew he would have to let Han go, because his human companion would grow old well before he did.

Beca asked me “Who owns the Falcon now?” to which I instinctively answered “They both do, together. Evenly.” Chewbacca and Rey’s relationship will be more balanced. Rey represents a younger, more tolerant, optimistic, and empathetic generation, while Han is the older generation, set in its male/human-dominated ways of thinking. Rey’s assumption of Han’s chair in the cockpit, next to Chewie is the beginning of a new chapter for the widowed Wookiee.

Chewbacca’s going to get his groove back, y’all.


The best pilot in The Force Awakens is the one flying the camera ship

I’ll admit that camerawork was one thing I was worried about when I saw the first teaser trailer for The Force Awakens. But in my hopeful heart, I chose to see it as a gauntlet being thrown, letting us know that this was not going to be a Geroge Lucas movie. Thankfully, I was right. Here’s what I could cobble together from the trailers:

apocalypse-now-4-storaro-helicopter

Vittorio Storaro shooting Apocalypse Now

I’ll write up a full dissection of the cameras in The Force Awakens when it comes out on video, but one obvious echo that makes me very happy is shooting fast-moving ships with a really long lens from far away. This technique was defined in Firefly and popularized in Battlestar Galactica (effects for both provided by Zoic). Firefly was one of the first times that the handheld, documentary style, that was becoming popular at the time on television at the time, was brought outside, into space. It was as if some camera operator in a pressure suit was having to work really hard to keep up with the action, and didn’t alway get the framing or focus right. Here’s an example from the Firefly episode, “Serenity”:

I was glad to see the technique, refined and used sparingly, in a Star Wars movie.

Names are important. [updated January 3, 2016]

Finn starts with a number, FN-2187, and is given a name by Poe. It is symbolic, of his transition to personhood. This change is consummated with the shedding of his armor following the crash on Jakku. But Finn has no last name, no surname, no family name. He has no family, and his name underscores this lack. Later, Han gives Finn another name, “Big Deal” and even calls him “Kid,” Han’s nickname for Luke.

Han_SnowThere is some confusion around Han’s name as well. Finn calls him “Solo” to which, Han replies “Did you just call me Solo?” Fin is flustered and says “Sorry. Han…Mr. Solo.” Han previously dismisses his own name when Rey blurts out “You’re Han Solo,” and he answers “I used to be.” If names are tied to family identity, Han clearly has some issues with family.

Rey also has no family name (that we know of), and she also has no family when we meet her. Unlike Finn, Rey gets no names bestowed on her by new family members, pointing to the revealing of her actual family name in a future chapter. We shall see.

In contrast to Finn and Rey, Kylo Ren discards his family name. The Dark Side has a tradition of obfuscation using names: Palpatine/Darth Sidious, Anakin/Vader. He rejects his birth father (Han) in favor of an adopted one (Snoke).

I also noticed a stormtrooper in The Force Awakens identify himself at TK-338. I guess TK is a popular given name among stormtroopers, since TK-421 was the name of the stormtrooper on the Death Star who “loaned” his armor to Luke and Han.


Potpurri for $400, Alex

potpourriAnd to wrap up, here are some miscellaneous observations, some of which require more thought and research to sort out, and some of which are just things that tickled or irked me. I’ll likely expand on many of them at some point in the future, but for now, they are more stubs than anything.

Luke will refuse to train Rey – You know this has to happen. He failed with Ben/Ren and won’t want to risk another apprentice turning to the Dark Side. Also, he’s now Gandalf the White:
Gandalf_the_White

Great actors, well directed – Everyone is great, and the performances are deep and nuaced. They are obviously getting more direction than “faster” and “more intense” this time around.

The Bechdel Test – After the movie, Beca said “Well, that certainly passed The Bechdel Test.” And how!

Home – Home is certainly a theme in The Force Awakens. Characters are leaving, returning, losing, finding and creating home and family throughout.

Dealing with the past and moving forward – The secondary theme is dealing with and letting go of the past. It’s also the meta-theme for the franchise itself.

The Millenium Falcon reveal – This is the best character introduction in the film and one of the best I’ve ever seen. Got a huge cheer from the audience. Beca pointed out that it’s another nice nod to Firefly:

“Princesses…” nope. – When C-3P0 quips “Princesses,” to Han Solo, I heard “Bitches,” and it was weird and out of character and pulled me out of the movie.

R2-D2 still saying the same things over and over – This is my biggest disappointment with The Force Awakens. The sounds that R2-D2 (and all droids) make is dialogue. It’s not sound effects, it’s a character’s dialog, just like Chewbacca’s grunts and growls. Reusing the same series of sounds from previous movies in completely different context and conversations makes R2-D2 seem like he has Alzheimer’S Disease. The beauty of Artoo’s dialog in Episodes IV-VI was that you could almost make out what he was saying. The best example is this exchange from New Hope:

You can almost hear Artoo say “Do you think he likes me?” Star Wars fans know Artoo’s dialogue intimately. We’ve heard each line dozens (OK, hundreds) of times in the context of the films, and countless times on soundboards, keychains, ring tones and coming out of toys. We recognize these lines when we hear them, so when we hear them thrown randomly into a conversation, it’s as if Han asked Leia about their son and she replied “Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way.” Everything he says is a non sequitur.  

Civil rights for droids have advanced – Maz Kanata’s cantina welcomes droids, unlike the cantina in Mos Eisley.

The Wilhelm Scream is there – It’s in the hangar as Poe and Finn are escaping in the TIE fighter. It’s subtle and nicely integrated. And, like a Hitchcock cameo in his later films, happens early, so we can stop looking for it.

Ships swallowing ships – When the Falcon gets scooped up by the Eravana, I thought of these two things:

Bala-Tik sounds like the Original Human Jabba – As soon as Bala-Tik started talking to Solo about their deal and being owed money, with a working-class accent, all I could think of was this:

...and here is your floppy disk.

…and here is your floppy disk.

Data storage metaphors have been updated – Leia gave the Death Star plans to Artoo on a disk. BB-8 get’s his secret plans on a thumb drive! I mean, that star chart couldn’t have been that much data, right?


So, there you go. Agree with me, argue with me, prove me right/wrong.

 

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They Live: Alley Fight

ANNOUNCER
How long do you think a fight scene should last on screen?

MAN
I don’t know. Two minutes?

ANNNOUNCER
Try a little longer.

MAN
Two and a half?

ANNNOUNCER
Not quite. Try again.

MAN
Certainly not three minutes?

ANNNOUNCER
Longer.

MAN
Four?!

ANNNOUNCER
Try again.

MAN
Five?

ANNNOUNCER
The fight scene in They Live lasts more than five and a half minutes.

MAN
Bullshit!

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Generational Learning Styles – Louie

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Star Maps

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Episode II Holograms

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Tad’s Podcast Recommendations

I have a long commute. I listen to lots of podcasts. I want other people to listen to the podcasts that I like, and I’ve spent a long time finding a bunch of them that I find reliably entertaining and/or informative (usually both). I’ll update this page as I discover new ones. Please feel free to recommend podcasts you think should be on this list.


Flophouse_ATC The Flop House Podcast

I found The Flop House when it was mentioned on the Judge John Hodgman podcast. Hodgman met Flophouse co-host Elliott Kalan on The Daily Show, where Kalan is now Head Writer, and Hodgman is a semi-regular correspondent. Why would I not try a podcast about bad movies recommended by both Judge John Hodgman and Bailiff Jesse Thorn?

It actually took me a while to start listening to The Flop House because I mistakenly thought I should see the movies being discussed before listening. I finally found one I had seen to start with and…it didn’t matter!

The guys watch a bad movie before recording the podcast and then summarize the plot (if possible) and then pass judgement (is it a goo/bad movie, a bad/bad movie, or a movie they kind of like). Then they recommend good movies you actually should watch, followed by a letters section. Not only do you not have to watch the movies before listening, they might keep you from watching a truly terrible movie.

But insight into terrible movies is not the reason to listen to The Flop House. The hilarious banter between Kalan, fellow Daily Show writer, Dan McCoy and their pal Stuart Wellington is the reason. These are three extremely funny guys who also have the easy comfort of long-time friends…and you will soon find yourself drawn into this group of friends and their in-jokes. Remember the first time you laughed at an MST3K callback to an earlier episode. That will happen listening to The Flop House.

Start after episode 11, when Elliott became a regular on the show. Do start back in the early episodes and work your way forward to enjoy the development of regular features like The Flop House Housecat, letters from Elliott’s brother David, Castle Freak, and words that sound like other words.

Not only is this a podcast I wish I’d thought of, it’s one I wish I was on.


WritersBloc_ATCcoverWriters’ Bloc With J.R. Havlan

I discovered Writers’ Bloc when Elliott Kalan on The Flop House mentioned his upcoming appearance on his Daily Show coworker’s podcast. Do you see a pattern here?

J.R. Havlan was a writer on The Daily show for almost 18 years, and while many of the guests are current or former writers on that show, most of them have gone on to write for other shows, doing the kind of comedy writing that Havlan himself never has: multi-camera sitcoms, single-camera sitcoms, late night talk shows, sketch shows and animation. The result is a writer interviewing writers about the specifics of the type of writing they do.

Want to know what about the writer’s room at The Simpsons? Pitching shows to networks? Blocking in a Community script with dummy dialog to keep things moving when you get stuck on a scene? Havlan asks about all of them and genuinely wants the answers.

He’s the perfect combination of insider and outsider. Required listening for anyone interested in writing for TV.


JJhoThe Judge John Hodgman Podcast

I’ve been a fan of John Hodgman before I knew who he was. He was the wrote and performed two of my favorite This American Life segments:

Invisible Man vs. Hawkman

It’s Another Tequila Sunrise

In fact, I recommended “Invisible Man vs Hawkman” to people for years before I put it together that that voice was the same as the PC guy from the Apple commercials! The point is that I remain a fan of John Hodgman and I was excited to hear that not only does he have a podcast, but it’s a People’s Court style adjudication podcast!

On every episode, Judge John Hodgman hears a “case” brought against each other by listeners who Skype into the “courtroom.” Bailiff Jesse Thorn acts as a combination Rusty Burrell and Doug Llewelyn and alternately keeps the proceedings on track and derails them. I like the podcast, but I fell in love with it after Episode 103: Gas, Grass, or Justice on which Paul F. Tompkins is a guest expert in the case, but hangs around to clear the docket with the judge and the two go on a long ramble about haunted hotels.


TWITThis Week in Tech

I’ve been listening to TWiT for almost as long as it has been around. My mom listened to Leo Laporte‘s radio show forever, and I was a big fan of The Screen Savers, and even appeared on the show once with my friend Benton Jew. TWiT is something of a continuation of that TV show in audio and video podcast form.

Unlike Leo’s radio show, TWiT is not really for lay people. It’s for tech nerds who would be interested by a 20 minute discussion of Net Neutrality or the best kind of keyboard. The quality of the show can vary widely depending on that week’s guests, but Leo and good natured crank John C. Dvorak are almost always there to anchor the show.

I don’t listen to the show every week anymore, but instead dip in every month or so.


wtfWTF with Marc Maron

As with This American Life, it’s hard to imagine anyone hasn’t at least heard of WTF if they haven’t listened to it before. And that’s because it’s compelling. And it’s compelling because Marc Maron is a…complex personality, but one you root for…and most of the comedians he interviews are also…complex personalities.

I go through phases with WTF. I’ll listen regularly for a month or so, then stop for a month or so. But every time I his a “meh” episode with perhaps too much Marc Maron drama/news and a less-compelling guest, I notice an interview with someone I really like pops in the queue and I’m back in.

WTF has a premium membership model, so the latest 50 episodes are free, but older episodes are only accessible using the subscription-based app. The good news is that you can buy a single month if you want to binge. I listen free most of the time, but will get a one-month subscription if we’re taking a road trip.

Here are some of my favorite episodes:

Episode 177 – Garry Shandling; This is a great example of WTF at it’s best. Marc’s insecurities play an important role in this interview, and Gary Shandling confirms that he’s a remarkable person as well as a huge comedic talent.

Episode 498 – Ru Paul Charles: This is a great, life-affirming episode. Just great. Ru Paul is on my hero list now.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as being a “comedy nerd” but I guess the box of comedy records in the garage qualify me as one, and probably accounts for my familiarity with so many of Marc’s guests.


SavageLove-lovecast-dan-1400The Savage Lovecast

This one is not for everyone and is NSFW. Dan Savage is, in my opinion, an American hero. With his husband, Terry Miller, Savage created the It Get’s Better Project to address LGBT teen suicide. He also made the Santorum thing happen (no, I’m not going to link to that. You can look it up if you need to). He does good work.

He also hosts a heck of a sex advice podcast.


mothThe Moth

True stories, told onstage. without notes. That is the core of what The Moth is all about. Some of the stories are funny, some will make you cry, but all of them are fascinating.

This is one of my favorites:

“Blues Clues, Stowaways and Marital Surprises” – Steve, the host of Blue’s Clues relates a grown-up story about fame and dating.

Most of the individual stories are less than three minutes long, so The Moth makes for good dishwasher loading/unloading entertainment.


NormNorm MacDonald Live

Each episode of Norm’s interview show starts with a sketch bit with Norm and his sidekick Adam Eget. I reflexively skipped these the first few times I listened (conditioned by Marc Maron), so I could get right to the funny interviews. Then I listened to one. Holy crap. I forgot how funny Norm MacDonald is. I went back and listened to the opening sketches I skipped.

This podcast is not for everyone. You probably already know if you like Norm MacDonald. If you do, give it a try. If not, pick an interview with someone you do like (Russell Brand, Ray Romano, Fred Willard) and give it as try.

I noticed that the interview with Gilbert Gottfried was so long it spanned two episodes. Holy crap. Gilbert and Norm are really funny together. If you like them…which you may not. Gilbert is a thread that runs between several of the podcasts on my list.

This is one that you can either watch on YouTube or listen to as a podcast; I listen to the audio version.


Sunday-School-Logo-April1Penn’s Sunday School

Outspoken atheist, libertarian, reality show contestant, magician, juggler, father, husband, and self-professed asshole, Penn Jillette preaches love every Sunday from his in-home studio in Las Vegas. 

I started listening to this one from the very first episode. For the first four or five of them, Penn was very careful to mention that this podcast thing was an experiment and might go away at any point. Over 100 episodes later, it’s still going strong.

Penn, fellow juggler Michael Goudeau and improv comedian Matt Donnelly discuss current events, cephalopod news, monkeys, and whatever Penn is up to (which right now is a crowd-funded thriller in which he plays the villain). That’s it. Three smart funny guys who like hanging out letting us listen.

Yes, there is lots of (mostly respectful) discussion of religion, atheism, and Libertarianism, but they really so discuss squids and monkeys…and magic.

Like Norm MacDonald’s podcast, when Gilbert Gottfried was a guest on Sunday School, it took multiple episodes to contain the comedy. This one is also available on video and you can watch it live on Sunday afternoon.


 gilbertGilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast!

Here it is. Where the multiple streams of Gilbert Gottfried converge and condense. This podcast is pure, uncut Gilbert. But that can be very funny and he gets guests that he genuinely wants to talk to, even if most people don’t know who they are.

Comics often joke that Gilbert’s newest cultural references in his act are from the 1940s, and they are not really wrong. But I grew up watching The Lone Ranger, The Little Rascals and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon every morning before elementary school. I was also fed a steady diet of classic Universal monster movies. Gilbert’s co-host, Frank Santopadre is an expert on old Hollywood in his own right.

So, guests like Larry Storch, Adam West, Butch Patrick, and Barbara Feldon should not be surprising. Gilbert and Frank are genuine fans of this stuff and are genuine fans of these people. It makes for great interviews…but it’s still Gilbert, so there are questions about Uncle Milton’s…um…equipment, Paul Lynde’s anti-semitism, and Charles Nelson Riley giving his young male costars on Lidsville a bit too much attention between takes.

Oh, and the Danny Aiello episode is amazing!


ByTheWay_1600x1600_Cover-1024x1024By the Way: In Conversation With Jeff Garlin

This one can be a bit polarizing. The “in conversation” part of the title is accurate. Jeff Garlin is doing a good portion of the speaking in this podcast. The good news is that he can be as charming and funny as he is somewhat abrasive and loud.

Most people know Jeff Garlin from Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Larry David was an early guest on the show. The guests are people that Garlin is genuinely fond of or admires and he makes no apologies for gushing more than a bit. And he gets great people to share the stage with him at Largo in Los Angeles.

He does sometimes repeat the same story, and he does use certain phrases over and over (a great big bowl of ________), and that may be a good reason not to binge this podcast.


dead authorsThe Dead Authors Podcast

Paul F. Tompkins is at his best when he becomes H.G. Wells somewhat monthly at UCB to interview dead authors that he has whisked from their own time with his Time Machine. And now you know the premise of this show.

Improv comics and actors play the roles of the authors being interviewed and do either lots of research…or none, before having an improvised conversation with Wells about their lives and work. It works most of the time and when it works best, it is extremely funny.

But Tompkins’ recurring role as Wells is what keeps it all together for me. Over the course of podcasts, we learn of his rivalry with Jules Verne, favorite contemporary TV shows and places in LA where he like to take visitors from other eras. He’s great and this is a role tailor made for him. Chapter 7: P.G. Wodehouse, featuring Brian Stack almost made me wet my pants. ‘Nuff said.


this lifeThis American Life

This is the first podcast I ever listened to…because I listened to it before it was a podcast. I remember hearing the first episode of TAL on KQED in San Francisco in 1995. I was hooked.

Episodes made their way online fairly soon after and that was the main way I listened, starting with Real Player and eventually downloading mp3 files.

I can’t imagine that there are that many folks out there who haven’t heard TAL, but if you haven’t, start with these lists of episodes chosen by the creators of the show:

The Short List

Other Favorites

Early Shows (I recommend “Who’s Canadian” from this list)

They produced two seasons of a TV show based on the series, and it was pretty darn good, too. In 2014, Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass toured a fantastic stage show that combined Ira telling stories and Monica and Anna dancing. It should not have worked, but absolutely did. If One Radio Host and Two Dancers comes back around, go see it!


Planet_MoneyPlanet Money Podcast

Planet Money is a spin off of This American Life. It’s origin story begins with a series of reports which aimed (and succeeded) to explain the subprime mortgage crisis in a way that normal people could understand. And then Alex Blumberg and his team kept going, producing more economic stories for TAL, and eventually starting their own podcast.

It turns out I like economics. Or rather, I like economics when it is presented in and interesting and accessible way. This podcast was my gateway drug and the Freakonomics podcast was the next logical step. You may not think you like economics, but you might too, and this podcast is a good way to tell if you do.

Planet Money is an example, like TAL before it, of a radio show that uses reporters with, let’s say unconventional voices as on-air presenters. Zoe Chace would not have found her voice on the air 20 years ago. You might find her annoying at first, but hang in there. Remember how weird Ira Glass and Sarah Vowell sounded at first? And then she got cast as the voice of Violet Parr in The Incredibles. Start with the most recent episode.


startupStartUp

This should not be a compelling podcast.

But it totally is.

This American Life and Planet Money producer, Alex Blumberg is starting a new podcast network and StartUp is the first podcast he is producing. And StartUp is about Blumberg starting his new podcast network, or more precisely securing funding and setting up his new company.

It’s a story you never hear and it’s fascinating. It’s emotional, and educational, and inspirational. If you have any interest in entrepreneurship, venture capital, podcasting, documentary journalism, or if you are just a fan of Alex Blumberg, or Planet Money or This American Life, you should try this podcast. Start at the beginning!


serial-social-logoSerial

Serial is another, more direct spin-off of This American Life and it has the opposite format. Instead of several stories on a theme each episode, Serial follows one story over the course of many episodes…like a serial. For the first season, Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder do an amazing job of pacing and structuring the tale of a murder investigation and conviction that is anything but open and shut. Of all the podcasts I listen to, this is the one I really wait for each week.

I hope they keep doing more and I hope they are able to find more stories that are this compelling and which keep you coming back week after week. Listen from the beginning!


Freakonomics_iTunes_Square-newFreakonomics Radio Podcast

Based on the unlikely bestseller of the same name, this is the other economics podcast I listen to. Economist Steven D. Levitt and writer Stephen J. Dubner are an unlikely team that apply economic principles to all manner of everyday problems and conundrums. It makes for fascinating, informative and often surprising listing. Start with the latest episode (they are often timely), and you’ll know pretty quick if this one is for you. If you like this one, odds are you will like Planet Money. They have very different personalities as podcasts, but look at economics in a similar way. I wish they would join forces on some projects!


real timeReal Time with Bill Maher

This is one of the podcasts that I listen to that is really a TV show masquerading as a podcast. I’m not sure why HBO publishes the audio of Bill Maher’s political comedy panel show, but they do, and I’m glad. It lets me enjoy it even though I don’t subscribe to cable. I’ve been a fan of Maher since Politically Incorrect way back when and he’s only gotten better with the format.

The only downside to listening to the show rather than watching it is missing out on the visual gags that are part of almost every episode. Atheist, liberal, pot-smoking Maher may not be to everyone’s taste, but he gets great guests of every political stripe and treats them all with respect…but does call bullshit on things they say if he thinks they are…well, bullshit.


pd_rachel_video The Rachel Maddow Show

MSNBC goes even farther than HBO and publishes both an audio and a video version of Rachel Maddow’s daily news and opinion show. They used to do the same with Keith Olbermann’s show (before he imploded <sigh>), and that’s where I became a Maddow fan when she used to guest host for him and then got her own show.

I love Rachel Maddow. She is an unabashed Liberal who treats all of her guests with common decency and is careful to correct herself is she makes factual mistakes on the air. But the goal is not to make any such mistakes and she frequently starts interviews with guests by asking “In that introduction did I get anything wrong misrepresent anything?” Who does that? Rachel Maddow.

She’s also goofy and passionate and a friend to our active duty military and veterans alike. She also shares cocktail recipes on many Friday shows. We’ve made several. They are good.


RadiolabRadiolab_1

Radiolab is a podcast version of the popular public radio show about science, the scientific method and the wonder of everyday things. Sometimes this show teeters on the edge of being overproduced, and sometime it goes over that line. Jad Abumrad is a musician as well as a host and radio producer. He loves creating soundscapes. The goal is to help illustrate the often challenging concepts being described on the show. The sometimes distract from it. But usually they do hat they are supposed to. Likewise, co-host Robert Krulwich sometimes aims for goofy and relatable and bleeds uncomfortably close to embarrassing. He doesn’t really end up there ever…but almost.

Having said that, the podcast is really great and does an great job of making science interesting. It’s great storytelling. The “Emergence” and “Colors” episodes are amazing!


99invisible-logo-itunes-badge99% Invisble

Attention design nerds of all kinds! This podcast is for you! While there is a general focus on architectural design, many other kinds of design get love from host Roman Mars.

All game designers should listen to Episode 77: Game Changer right now.

All graphic designers should listen to Episode 54: The Colour of Money and Episode 06: 99% Symbolic (the flag design episode) ASAP.

But the truth is everyone should listen to all three of those episodes, and all of the rest of them, too. They are entertaining, informative and funny.


off_camera

Off Camera With Sam Jones

Wait…the guy who played Flash Gordon has an interview podcast? No, not that Sam Jones! Sam Jones the portrait photographer. More importantly, Sam Jones the portrait photographer who has been photographing celebrities for years and earning their trust. That trust allows him to have actual conversations with them, and they are very compelling.

Jones fall somewhere between a professional interviewer and a friend/colleague, and never seems to succumb to adoration or fanhood. He’s a pro who spends lots of time with famous people. It makes for a unique interview experience. Start with any interview subject you like.

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Lord Vader Breaks Down A.B.C.

Darth Vader is here from downtown, here from Emperor and Tarkin, on a mission of mercy…

Darth Vader describes the principles of ABC, Always Be Choking on a blackboard

Lord Vader breaks it down.

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Thoughts on Godus

godusAfter a few days playing Godus on my iPad, I thought “Man, I wish there was a normal, not free-to-play version of this.” I also had these thoughts at various points:

  • “Oh man, it’s another Tapped Out-style Skinner Box game!”
  • “Please let there be a way to build a church soon, so that a pastor can automatically collect all this belief for me”
  • “Wait! My people like trees? Why did you teach me that destroying them was a way to earn belief?”
  • “This game is beautiful…and I’m only going to see a tiny part of it.”
  • “Hey! I’m supposed to be playing god, but I’m being manipulated to keep performing tasks and follow arbitrary rules to benefit an unseen game designer.”

Yesterday, after trying unsuccessfully to get a farmer to work on an abandoned field, I checked the web for some info and discovered…there is a normal, not free-to-play version of Godus! The PC and Mac versions are available on Steam! WTF?!

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 6.28.17 PMBut after a quick scan of the support forums, it seems that the $20US, non-iOS version still makes you wait in real-time for things to happen. So, like the free-to-play version, your majority of your time engaging with the game is spent not engaging with it. Don’t most god games give you a way to speed up time at will?

One of my pet peeves is going to see a movie in 2D and seeing loads of shots that were clearly designed for 3D projection…and which totally fail to work in 2D. Why not create alternate versions of the shots for the majority of viewers who will see the film in 2D? It always pulls me right out of the film. I’m looking at you Oz the Great and Powerful.

It sounds like the PC/Mac version of Godus was similarly built as a free-to-play game and plays as such, even if you paid $20US for it.

I blame Peter Molyneux.

I really liked Black and White. I liked Fable. Fable II was pretty fun, but disappointing. Remember what Peter Molyneux promised us the dogs in Fable II would be like?

I wanted a whole game of just that dog!

Finally, just watching Beca play Fable III made me angry. But Godus promised a return to the style of game I loved in Black and White and it looked beautiful. Yes, I would give him another chance.

And I did…for one week. I just deleted Godus from my iPad. Playing it, I constantly felt like I was fending off a particularly aggressive homeless person demanding money every time you are on your way to work (or the store, or the park…).

It’s really too bad. As mentioned (twice), the game is beautiful, sculpting the world is fun, and most disappointingly, you can see a potentially meaningful game there, just under the surface. You can see the game as it may originally have been conceived. One that asks players to ask questions about the nature of wielding godlike power. About how you treat those you are responsible for. About providing trinkets and distraction for believers to keep them loyal. About harming the neighboring tribe to make it less attractive to “your” chosen people.

I want to play that game.

I’m sad that good, thoughtful game designers are being distracted from making good, thoughtful games, because they are chasing the quick money to be made making Skinner Box games.

ftlFTL is a fantastic game that could easily have been wrecked by being shoehorned into a free-to-play model–not that there haven’t been moments when I’ve wished I could pay real money for some extra scrap!

While there have been a few bright spots in the free-to-play space, notably Hearthstone, which makes me very proud to work at Blizzard, it’s mostly junk that plays on the same psychological weaknesses that keep people sitting in front of slot machines for days on end. Candy Crush was fun…until it made me feel terrible.

And yes, I still want to play a version of Fable II in which the dog is the focus.

husky_02

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Leckman Back Yard Renovation Time Lapse

More time-lapse videos of people we paid to destroy our house…

 

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Leckman Kitchen Renovation Time-Lapse

The day before demolition began for our kitchen renovation, I dug out my iPhone 4, a long USB charging cable, a Gorillapod, and updated my copy of iTimeLapse. After a few tests, I set it up to capture the process of destroying and re-building our kitchen.

Watching me pack up the kitchen is not the most exciting start, but it gave me a chance to get comfortable with the set-up.

 

This was the main thing we wanted to capture, but the demo itself shook the shelf that the iPhone was on, introducing an unintentional pan to the shot.


 


 


 


 


 


 


 

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