I’ve seen The Last Jedi twice now. I’m still not sure how I’d rank it, but the performances are way better than most of the prequel trilogy, and the story is the first theatrical Star Wars to break new ground in ages.

I’ll admit there’s a lot of stuff that happened that I didn’t like, but it made sense within the story context, and it was done in an interesting way. And there was a lot of cool stuff too…including a ton of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it details that I missed the first time through.

What do you mean, “Like?”

I learned years ago that “stuff happened that I didn’t like” and “it was badly made” are two separate comments on a movie, TV show, book, or other work of art.

Do I like the reason Luke left? No, but it makes sense. (A lot more sense than him joining the Dark Side with a resurrected clone of Darth Sidious, TBH.) When you think about it, it’s probably the best explanation they could have come up with for why Luke would decide that he’s part of the problem and remove himself from the galactic stage. It would have to be something majorly traumatic that he would blame himself for.

Do I like that the Resistance command don’t trust each other enough to share plans? No, but again it makes sense under the circumstances, and it feeds into the themes.

Structure and Hope

The Last Jedi feels different from the other Star Wars films. It’s a lot of separate threads that seem mostly unconnected but come together toward the end into a clear picture. Rey’s journey is critical, as is Kylo Ren’s, as is the link between their journeys. Luke’s reasons for being on the island, and his triumphant return, are tied deeply into the plight of the Resistance as it battles the loss of hope, which we see in the slow attrition of the fleet chase, the breakdown of trust within command, and finally the point where they’re reduced to one small band making what could well be a last stand.

And the trip to Canto Bight? For all the whining about it, I think it’s thematically more important than the chase. It shows people taking advantage of both sides of the conflict, and it shows ordinary civilians being oppressed…and that epilogue.

The First Order does everything they can to snuff out that spark of hope, and almost succeeds…but it flares again. We see it with Luke, and with Rey, but their actions only preserve what’s left. It still feels like a hollow victory until we see the epilogue and realize that the spark has taken hold, and is growing again — and that’s inspired as much by one kid’s encounter with Finn and Rose as the legend of Luke Skywalker.

Take out Canto Bight and you take out the epilogue. Take out the epilogue and you’re left with an unremittingly bleak story. Bleaker than Revenge of the Sith…but only* because we already knew where RoTS had to go.

Uncharted Regions

This is the first time since 1983 that there’s been real uncertainty about the future in a Star Wars movie. We didn’t know where The Empire Strikes Back was going, or Return of the Jedi. The prequel trilogy had a lot of surprises along the way, but we knew it would end with Anakin turning to the dark side and helping wipe out the Jedi, Palpatine becoming the Emperor, and the Republic becoming the Empire. I loved Rogue One, but again, we knew what it was building up to. And The Force Awakens was too focused on bringing fans back into the fold with familiarity to break new ground.

The Expanded Universe quickly set up a new status quo and told episodic stories within that setting. Some changes would stick over time, but you knew at the end of the day Leia was rebuilding the Republic, Luke was rebuilding the Jedi, and so on. Eventually they broke out of it and started making big changes with New Jedi Order, and subsequent stories that moved toward the more distant future of Legacy, but it was only a secondary canon, blessed but less official than the movies.

Now? We have no idea what might happen next. We can hope that the First Order will be defeated, because that’s the kind of story Star Wars is, but we have no idea what the cost will be, or who will make it through to the end, who might redeem themselves or turn to darkness.

And I have to wonder if that’s part of the backlash: Star Wars has been a familiar place for decades, and now that certainty is gone.

Cool stuff

So, some of those great details that I didn’t notice the first time through:

  • When Leia floats through the ruined bridge, she passes through the hologram of Snokes’ flagship, disrupting it just like Holdo’s hyperspace maneuver does later in the movie.
  • After Luke’s projection is finished, he sees two suns and the Force theme swells. The first time through I was so caught up in worry about Leia (tied up with Carrie Fisher’s death) that I didn’t quite notice. The second time through, I knew what was happening with her, but I just lost it at this moment.
  • The kid with the Resistance ring at the end doesn’t grab his broom and lift it – the broom moves to his hand.

*Well, that and Lucas didn’t manage to convey as much emotional heart in the prequels as he did in ANH or the other directors did w/ Empire & Jedi. They all felt slightly detached. And I’ve seen the actors in enough other movies to know it wasn’t their fault.

I saw 3D Theatricals’ production of Beauty and the Beast this weekend and really enjoyed it. It was much better than the stripped-down touring version we saw in 2010. Bigger cast, bigger orchestra, more elaborate costumes and sets, and they didn’t cut any of the songs (including the one I kind of wish they had).

Great performances from the leads. Belle was a little more brassy than I’m used to, but it worked. The scenes with her and Maurice at the beginning had a nice geeky-family-hanging-out feel to them. Gaston’s performance actually reminded me a lot of Captain Hammer.

It was interesting to see how they worked around the lack of an understudy for Lumiere. They said he (and the actor playing Chip) had been delayed by a car accident, which may have been one he was involved in, or may have been the multi-car fatal collision and fire that shut down the 5 freeway for the whole day. They pulled an actor from the ensemble who had never rehearsed the part, and while he knew a lot of it, they still had to work around things like the dance steps in “Be Our Guest.” (Belle stepped in and offered to lead.) The regular actor made it there before act two and stepped back into the role.

Incidentally: Chip is a thankless part. You have to sit inside a cart wearing a giant teacup on your head the entire time you’re on stage. Though I’m impressed at what it takes to play Mrs. Potts: You need to hold one arm up the entire time (or else wear a very unbalanced costume on your shoulder, which I can imagine messing up your back), and push that cart around one-handed, with choreography. I hope directors/costumers are willing to adapt the costume for the actress’ dominant hand.

Anyway, it was a good production, and an interesting live-theater snafu. Sadly, I was the only one flu-less enough to go, and it was the last weekend of a short run. One of these days!

We went out to see two plays* last week: The Glass Mendacity in LA and Ordinary Days at SCR.

The Glass Mendacity is a spoof of Tennessee Williams, mashing together The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and A Streetcar Named Desire into one messed-up family gathering, played as comedy instead of tragedy. There’s Big Daddy and Big Amanda Dubois; their son Brick (played by a mannequin) and his wife Maggie the Cat; their daughter Blanche and her husband Stanley Kowalski; their youngest daughter Laura; and a gentleman caller, who appears in the final sce–okay, he shows up in scene one and never leaves. It’s funny on its own, but absolutely hilarious if you know the plays being parodied.

The production we saw was at the Ark Theatre. It’s a tiny theater upstairs in the historic building that houses the Hayworth Theatre. In the 1920s, even office buildings had character! The lobby is basically entry-level landing to the rear stairway, but they’ve managed to fit in a small bar and a couple of tables.

Ordinary Days is a slice-of-life musical about four people in New York City: a couple just moving in together, a grad student, and an artist. Their stories intersect, and each reaches an epiphany about his or her life over the course of the story. The music reminded me a bit of Stephen Sondheim and a bit of Stephen Schwartz. The cast was good, and the set design did a great job of suggesting various locations in an enormous city.

This was the first show I’d seen at South Coast Repertory’s Julianne Argyros Stage. Somehow I managed to go a whole decade without seeing anything at SCR at all, and the other shows I’ve seen over the last year were all in what used to be the main stage. In my head, I still had the image of the old second stage, a box-shaped studio, up until the point that we walked in the door to see a proscenium stage and a house with a balcony and box seats. I might actually have missed this one, except we ran into one of my music theater teachers from college on the way to Xanadu last month, and he was rehearsing this show as the musical director and accompanist.

Both shows are still running. The Glass Mendacity runs through January 30, and Ordinary Days runs through January 24.

*Hooray for cheap tickets at Goldstar. ← (Darn right, it’s an affiliate link! If you sign up using it, they’ll give me $1 off my next purchase!)

EifelheimI recently finished reading Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. It’s a science fiction novel written as historical fiction, following two parallel stories:

  • In the present day, a historian is trying to figure out why a village wiped out in the Black Death was never resettled, while a physicist tries to work out a new cosmological theory.
  • In 1348, the pastor of Oberhochwald unexpectedly makes first contact with shipwrecked aliens, who spend the next year stranded on Earth near the village.

The present-day story is interesting, but hard to follow just because the viewpoint characters are very…self-absorbed.

Fortunately, most of the book focuses on the middle ages and the story of how a tiny German village encounters and eventually learns to live with the stranded aliens. It paints a detailed picture of life in the 1300s and how their strange visitors disrupt it, and it’s fascinating to look at how someone highly-educated in science and philosophy, but with a medieval European mindset, might see concepts like space travel, electricity, or even evolution. How do you explain coming from another planet in another star system to someone who believes that the Sun moves around the Earth, the stars are all the same distance away, and the “world” encompasses all of the above?

Archived at my reviews collection.

The Black Death

As the book caught up to the arrival of the plague in the village, I found myself curious about the timeline of the pandemic. In looking it up, I found an article proposing that, based on descriptions of the symptoms and spread of the disease, it might have been a viral hemorrhagic fever like Ebola or Marburg (with a longer incubation period), and not the bubonic plague. It probably falls under the category of “extraordinary claims,” but it’s certainly an interesting idea!

Wheel of Time: The Gathering StormThis weekend I finished reading the new Wheel of Time novel, The Gathering Storm. Now that I’ve read it, I can definitely say that Brandon Sanderson was a good choice to finish the series from Robert Jordan’s notes, and that splitting the final book into three was the right approach. It may be a doorstopper, but it would be difficult to cut more than a tiny amount without diminishing the impact of what remained.

No spoilers unless you don’t want to know which characters appear in the book. In which case, stop reading now. It focuses primarily on Rand, Egwene, and their respective entourages, though most of the other major characters make appearances. If I were to guess, the next book (Towers of Midnight) will probably focus mainly on Rand and Mat, and maybe Elayne. Katie reminded me that the title is a Seanchan reference, plus there’s another mission — well, quest, really — being built up involving a tower. (Not to mention the White Tower and Black Tower, of course!)

As in Knife of Dreams (and unlike Crossroads of Twilight), things happen in this book! There’s a growing sense of urgency throughout the novel, and everyone who can is pushing hard to have everything in place for the coming apocalypse. For some characters it’s a personal journey. For others it’s political. And for some, it’s simply geographical.

As far as meshing with the rest of the series goes, the only thing that stood out for me was that points of view would switch in the middle of a chapter more often than I expected. It’s not that Robert Jordan never did it, but I remember it being rare outside of the prologues. Brandon Sanderson is more likely to take what would have been two shorter, thematically linked chapters and combine them into one. Katie also noticed one spot early on that one character from Tarabon didn’t speak with the Taraboner dialect — but only the one instance, and one in which the phrasing would have been awkward. It still reads like a Wheel of Time book.

I wish Robert Jordan had been able to finish his epic himself, but it looks like we’re getting the next best thing.