A little here and there

I’ve had a lovely weekend. Today was really special in particular. It was a beautiful day. My wife and I put a lot of time and attention into training the puppy today, and it’s really shown off. We’re reinforcing learned tricks and introducing new ones and we’re happy with the pace, especially since she hasn’t been to obedience school yet. She seems so smart and picks up on things really quickly. Other than that, my day has been a little bit housework, a little bit yard work, a little bit of catch-up on my day job, and more than a little bit of leisure time.

If you can’t tell already, this is one of those meandering posts where I don’t have much to say but still wanted to check in. As per usual with these sorts of posts, I’ll at least briefly discuss the things I’m into that may or may not pop up on the blog in the near future.

After two months of homeownership, I finally pulled the Nintendo Switch and games out of storage in the guest bedroom. The first month was busy enough that video games were the last thing on my mind. The last month has been a little more focused on movies and reading, with admittedly way too much familiar TV thrown in. But I started getting the itch. Putting Desert Child on hold for a moment, I picked up Hello Neighbor. That’s a game that has an interesting concept but struggles in execution, and I’ll probably have more of a review when I either finish a play-through of the (relatively short) game or get exhausted by it, whichever comes first. For point of reference, I’m in the middle of Act 2 of 3. It’s a game where I wish I’d relied more on the available reviews. But of course, reviews are a subjective thing, and even a “bad” game can be something to be enjoyed. Just by way of example, I loved the simple action-RPG-lite beat-’em-up gameplay and branching story of X-Men: Destiny, even while recognizing that most of the complaints about that game were pretty valid (in fact-checking my memory of this game and reviews of the time, by the way, I was surprised to see that it had been de-listed from online stores and had unsold copies destroyed because of a legal dispute; now I really regret my decision to get rid of my copy, even though it was a game I likely wouldn’t play again and was taking up limited shelf space).

As for TV, I started The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which I can only watch when my wife’s not around (she hates puppetry, and stop-motion as well), and I’ve continued to slowly move through the quite fast-paced and bite-sized Adventure Time because I can only watch it when my wife is around (we were stalled for a long time because she just wasn’t in the mood, which is just baffling to me).

I’m reading too many things and moving too slowly, so I don’t have any interesting updates there. I did, however, learn from my wife that Netflix is going to release a series about Madam C.J. Walker, based on On Her Own Ground, in 2020, so that’s kind of a weird coincidence.

To close out my pop culture consumption, I don’t really have any movie updates, either. I’m mostly just eager to see The Rise of Skywalker in December (though weirdly I might be more excited for the next Jurassic World movie and associated TV series, even though I’ve still got quite a while to wait on both–I do love me some dinosaurs).

And…that’ll just about do it! Have a good week, folks.

Revised, never finished

The Indiana State Museum IMAX sometimes shows classic films, in addition to the expected blockbuster new releases and nature documentaries. I’ve been trying to take advantage of that, seeing films in IMAX that I’ve never seen in theaters at all before. This summer, I got to see Jaws and Apocalypse Now on the big screen. They’re both movies I’m rather fond of–you know, they’re classics, most people are fond of them–and so was excited to get to see in this format.

Apocalypse Now was a very interesting example because it was a version of the film that I’d never seen before. At home, I have a copy of Redux, which is of course already an altered, expanded version of the original. This, however, was the Final Cut, a 40th-anniversary re-release and restoration. In one of the promotional trailers for this new version, Francis Ford Coppola states that he wanted to “make a version that I like” that’s “longer than the 1979 version but shorter than Apocalypse Redux.” He says he recommends it as his “favorite” (note: not definitive) version.

I love this movie, and it looked great in this format. It was still wild to see yet another version of the film, one that felt in ways different in tone and pacing (and a little different in story) than the Redux cut that I’d become familiar with. It had actually been a few years since I’d last watched any version of the film, so the whole experience was a little dream-like as I tried to register what was different, what I had simply forgotten, and what I had perhaps misremembered. It was a good experience.

What mostly got me thinking with this new edition was how movies, like books, are never really final products: they’re just eventually published, released to an audience. They might continue to be revised over time; another easy example is the revision to The Hobbit to adapt Gollum to his characterization in The Lord of the Rings. Even published works get revised, growing and changing over time beyond simple corrections of errors.

Yet modern fans often look to “extended cuts” of films as more comprehensive, purer, canonical versions. It’s a tempting impulse: if a film adds in more scenes, then it seems to be more “complete.” I think part of that mindset can also be traced to the existence of deleted scenes as additional features on DVD and Blu-Ray releases, suggesting that a film is simply trimmed down, instead of conveying the reality of multiple scenes, and multiple takes of scenes, being combined, reoriented, re-cut to fit a final vision.

I think it’s also why fans viewed the Star Wars Special Editions so harshly, since those edits were viewed perhaps as more “comprehensive” or “canonical” than the previous versions, “replacing” more favored versions of scenes, never mind the consistent stream of minor edits and adjustments to the films over time (it didn’t help that it became very difficult to locate new releases of anything approaching the original versions after that).

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It’s fun to see Apocalypse Now: Final Cut defiantly offering another take that is, in many ways, less comprehensive than a previous release. And this version is not offered up as canonical–merely the director’s preferred version of the film. It encourages the viewer to observe the film as a constantly growing organism, living even after release not just because of continued developments by the creators but because of an ongoing dialogue between creators and viewers. After all, Final Cut is only presented as another version, a version favored and recommended by the director but not insisted upon as the ultimate or purest version of the film.

Maybe this sort of thing, this announcement and release not just of a longer film but a changed and favored film, happens more often than I realize, but Star Wars and Apocalypse Now remain for now the two most prominent examples (far removed from bizarre and easily parodied fanboy cries for a “Snyder cut” of any given DC film, for instance). I’d like to see more of that, more remixing of classics (old and new) by their creators to further deconstruct the idea of a rigid, “pure,” and ultimately lifeless work of art locked, fossilized, into a moment in time.

A weak week recap

I don’t know that I have much to say this week. We’re still adjusting to Rhodey’s absence in our home. After a week of struggling, we took today to get back to work on getting things unpacked, organized, renovated, etc. Today I tackled some yard work I’d let build up after Rhodey died. The previous owner kept a lovely lawn and garden, but in the months between her death and the home purchase, weeds crept in, and grasses spread like wildfire through the flower beds. So on top of the usual mowing and trimming and pruning, I’m finally getting around to beating back these vegetative invasions. My goal for this evening is to get as many of the books put away as possible. Truly, I don’t know that I’ll get that much done, or that I’ll continue it during the weeknights.

Speaking of books, I’m regaining my appetite for reading–or, really, my focus. I’m still all over the place with partially read books. Last week, I made a concentrated effort to finish A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell. I rather enjoyed it, but my (relatively) increased reading speed was largely motivated by the return date for the library. I racked up a little bit of a late fee there. Plus, it’s in demand, so I’m that jerk delaying someone’s hold. Not the main point: the main point is that Virginia Hall is a fascinating woman, the French Resistance is a fascinating movement within a period of history shrouded by great evil, and there are interesting parallels to today. Not the sort of book I usually talk about on this blog, but given that it helped jump-start my reading again, I figured it was worth a mention. (Thanks, Mom, for the recommendation however long ago that prompted me to place the hold in the first place.)

I still have a pile of books to get through, though. The list:

  • On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, by A’Lelia Perry Bundles (another library loan, and another of those books I don’t normally write here about, but I’m a fan of nonfiction, especially histories and biographies, especially those about Indianapolis and its significant residents, and even more narrowly, the people and culture of Indiana Avenue from its segregationist roots to its thriving status as an African-American arts and business district and its eventual destruction as the result of a complex variety of factors that, in general, don’t cast the city of Indianapolis, the state of Indiana, or IUPUI in the greatest light);
  • Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper, picked up because a mutual on Twitter was raving about it (and I like it so far, largely due to some really wild world-building, but I haven’t gotten very far in, and this in fact started as an eBook library loan but transformed into an inexpensive purchase when the loan expired);
  • Star Wars: Bloodline, by Claudia Gray, because (1) Star Wars, (2) Leia, and (3) Claudia Gray; and
  • Star Wars: Tales of the Bounty Hunters, one of the old Expanded Universe short story anthologies and an impulse buy for nostalgic reasons while at Half Price Books for something completely unrelated.

Oh, also, I haven’t even started it, but Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, recommended by a friend when I admitted to a lack of familiarity with this Daoist text (having only read the Tao Te Ching in college), is another book in my pile and another library loan.

I haven’t played any video games, old or new, familiar or unfamiliar, lately. Haven’t really been in the mood. I haven’t even hooked up the Switch in our new home yet. I’ve kind of been getting into the mood for mucking around in a Grand Theft Auto game. Before the move, I was playing Desert Child on Switch (which had been perfect timing, since I finally watched all of the Cowboy Bebop series), and I’m starting to feel the desire to get back to that. But I just haven’t had much of a drive to play games. Similarly, I haven’t really watched any movies lately, other than going to see a showing of Jaws in IMAX at the Indiana State Museum on Wednesday.

What’s everyone else reading or watching? Any recommendations that might tie into any of the above?

Here’s to a better week than the last one. Hopefully next week’s post, and my general mental state, will be more focused.

“It is to be commended. What is its number?”

Despite some delays, we’re still holding out hope for a closing at the end of this week on our first home. While a delay of a few days or a week wouldn’t be a big deal, it would be especially nice to close and take possession this week because it’s also the week that my work site has a summer shutdown. Regardless of whether we can actually start moving this week, we’ll at least be getting ready for it, packing and removing some of the stuff we won’t be taking with us.

It’s also a good week for catching up on other things I’ve been putting off. One of those things has just been keeping up with the Clone Wars rewatch, so last night I was binging several episodes, and tonight will get me back on pace with the once-a-week recaps on the official Star Wars website. In the rush of episodes, one small detail stuck with me.

In the episode “R2 Come Home,” R2-D2 must rescue Mace Windu and Anakin Skywalker from a lethal trap by escaping pursuing bounty hunters and contacting the Jedi Order. In the beginning of the episode, R2 is briefly partnered with Mace’s droid, R8-B7, before the latter unit is destroyed. But wait. R8? It looks like an identical model to R2. Why the different designation?

It’s a silly thing to get hung up on, but droid designations have long been really confusing to me. In the films alone, it’s easy enough to decide that the designations might be partial serial numbers or something to that effect. But at least in the old Expanded Universe, droid designations came to represent both the model and unit. For instance, there was a whole R-series of astromech droids that included R2 models, R4 models, R8 models, and so on. (Higher the number, newer the model release.)

Again, there’s nothing in the films, at least that I can think of, that would dictate this interpretation. I think it’s an artifact of the Expanded Universe’s impulse to extrapolate general characteristics from very limited anecdotal film details–like that all Hutts are gangsters, all Rodians are bounty hunters, all Twi’lek women are dancers, and so on. (Thankfully the EU moved more and more away from that, and the new canon doesn’t seem too guilty of that outside of casting the Hutts once more as a Space Mafia race.) And I’m sure that a lot of those generalizations are a result of the need to gamify elements of Star Wars; so much of the broader lore originated with West End Games and was spread in supplements created by WEG and the publishers who filled the tabletop publishing niche in the following years.

The idea that a droid’s name always starts with its model number doesn’t even really make a lot of sense, unless one assumes that there are a lot of droids designated R2-D2, or that owners are picking random elements of a much longer serial number to supplement the droids’ names. It feels more right to imagine a generic droid series, the “R-series,” for instance, with many models and unique designations under that. (Still, I bet there are other so-called R2-D2s rolling around in that galaxy far, far away.)

I got hung up on R8 in particular because that would have been a model released much later in the old EU, but also because the designation seemed to have no practical effect on the droid’s appearance. As usual, I seem to be late to the party. Wookieepedia’s Legends page for R8-B7 has a behind-the-scenes section referencing an old Star Wars Insider issue (58) that apparently explained that droid names are fragments of longer designations. (Without a copy of that issue, I’m just going to have to trust the accuracy of the source. For my purposes, seeing the existence of the proposed theory is sufficient, even if the source is incorrect.) That was before the unified canon reboot, but that seems like a very plausible explanation.

I still want to put too much emphasis on those model numbers, though. I remember as a kid reading about them in Star Wars Gamer issue 3 (“DROIDS”!) and the “Droids” chapter of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook during the publishing reign of Wizards of the Coast. Something about that was formative enough to lock it in as a thing I “knew” about droids. It’s a hard thing for me to unlearn–even though nothing says that those model numbers aren’t still canon. It’s easy enough to reconcile model number designations with inconsistent droid names under the serial number theory. Searching keywords related to this subject, I stumbled on a Reddit thread that points out that the personal designation of a droid could be pulled from anywhere in its serial number. So even the apparent rule-breaker R8 could really be R2-B17998R8-B7743, or something like that. Still, if that’s true, why even grab random numbers at all? Why not just name your droid “Frank” or “Scruffy” or just call it “Astromech”?

It’s really not something that needs more explanation, because there’s not something truly broken here. It’s just silly, is all.

Leia: Princess of Alderaan

Leia: Princess of Alderaan (Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, #3)Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I continue to greatly enjoy Claudia Gray’s contributions to the new Star Wars continuity. Leia: Princess of Alderaan is no exception. L:POA is a YA novel like Lost Stars, and there are certainly similarities between the two, including a story about young love set against an intergalactice stage and starring characters (in this case, Leia and her first crush Kier) who understand each other so well yet ultimately find themselves divided by opposing viewpoints. There are even parallel events between the novels; the Imperial ball Leia attends toward the end of L:POA is likely a predecessor of the ball depicted in LS, suggesting an annually recurring event (the timeline of the novels and her rank of apprentice legislator in L:POA versus junior senator in LS are sufficient for me to treat them as separate events), and I’ll never forget the Moa or its crew so was pleased to see a brief cameo in L:POA as well.

Gray’s novels have some appropriately Star Wars-ian big action sequences, but the best moments are quieter scenes spent in characters’ heads, or in high society setpieces with plenty of melodrama, like a dinner party or ball. There’s plenty of all the above in L:POA. As usual, Gray seems to perfectly convey the voices of established characters like Leia, Mon Mothma, and Bail Organa–all the more impressive here since Leia is not nearly so tough or jaded at this point in her life, and Bail is unusually anxious and emotionally overwhelmed as he deals with the reality that he can’t keep Leia safe or separate from his growing rebellion, such that we see the characters dealing with things differently than they would in the films, and know that they are at different points in their lives, but we still see elements of their personalities that we know well. It doesn’t feel out of character; the differences reflect living personalities that can and will change over time. Gray seems to have a lot of fun with Tarkin in particular, and his cold, calculating evil is a heavy influence in L:POA just as it was in the first part of LS. I also liked the many new characters that are introduced, including all the members of Leia’s pathfinding group. Though not a truly new character, Queen Breha Organa is given a wholly developed, distinctive personality, and we finally see how much Leia inherited not just from her adoptive father but her adoptive mother as well.

Much was made out of Leia’s one-off use of the line, “Strength through joy,” preserved in my first edition copy of the book though apparently changed in later editions. I’ll confess that I would have remained ignorant of the Nazi association if not for the resultant backlash within fandom. Gray was right to apologize for the oversight, I understand why people were upset, and it’s good that this was updated later. But I firmly believe that this was just a simple oversight, because Gray’s books, including L:POA, are full of sympathetic, engaging, and diverse characters, and the fascist rule of the Galactic Empire is clearly portrayed as evil in and of itself, even without the cackling villainy of Palpatine and his immediate underlings. L:POA is a novel about resisting fascism, tyranny, and oppression, about finding ways to combat a bad system from the inside, and about learning when it becomes necessary to force change from the outside, even if the mechanism of that force is violent. It was also clear exactly what the Organas and the other Rebels are fighting for in this book: freedom, equality, planetary sovereignty, and an end to cronyism and blatant governmental corruption. Leia goes on mercy missions, delivering food and medicine to worlds impacted by the actions of the Empire. And the Empire’s actions aren’t just planet-destroying or abstract; we see actual examples of unjust policies, and how those policies could be supported by those who benefit from the Empire. Leia at one point observes slavers and, though heartbroken, insists on bearing witness and doing what she can on Alderaan to ensure that any slaves passed through that system will be freed. Where a lot of Star Wars, especially in the movies, does a poor job of presenting just what was good about the Old or New Republic and just what the Rebels were fighting for, Claudia Gray makes the portrayal of that purpose and positivity a primary goal, especially in contrast to the banal evil of the Imperial bureaucracy. (As an aside, I think that Gray sees the Rebellion as cohering not necessarily over an agreement about what an Imperial replacement should be or even over basic moral principles, so much as a desire to return sovereignty to individual planetary governments. I think that’s an interesting and complicated perspective, one that seems rather real and plausible, and it also does a good job of explaining why the eventually unified Rebel Alliance of the films doesn’t have much of a clearly conveyed vision other than resistance to the Empire and, presumably, restoration of the Republic.)

If you’d asked me five years ago where to get into Star Wars books, my safe answer would have been Zahn’s EU Thrawn trilogy. Now, my enthusiastic answer is anything by Claudia Gray, and Leia: Princess of Alderaan only reinforces that opinion.

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TPM on the 20th

Like many people, I celebrated The Phantom Menace‘s twentieth anniversary today by watching the film. I remain very much so someone on the outside looking in on fandom, but it has seemed to me that fans of the movie have become more vocal in celebrating it over the past five or ten years, and general opinion has mellowed.

I have a bad habit of providing opinions amplified by several layers of hyperbole in person, and so I know over the years that my expressed opinion on the films has changed rather a lot. I was ten years old when the movie came out, and still a fairly new Star Wars fan, and so I was the perfect viewer in that moment. I loved it. In my adolescence, as a result of the combination of vehement criticism from older fans and my natural teenage aversion to anything silly or earnest, I joined my friends in decrying the film–typically in the context of condemning the course of the prequel trilogy as a whole (Attack of the Clones has always been my least-favorite Star Wars movie, so at the time, it felt like the movies were getting progressively worse). It was in college that I started to come back around to the film, returning to it as to an old friend. My opinion today is tempered. I think it’s a fine but flawed film, and it typically lands in the middle of any personal ranking of the franchise installments.

My personal criticisms of the film, despite my broader changes in attitude toward it, have remained relatively consistent. The podrace scene is too long and bogs down the story. It’s unclear why Palpatine’s Sith identity is treated like a secret withheld from the audience, even while the camera lingers over him ominously in many key scenes and everyone who’s seen Return of the Jedi knows how this all turns out. The scatological humor, while not unique to this episode, isn’t funny. Anakin is too young, with too much of an age gap, to take his childhood crush on Padmé very seriously, and to the extent that she reciprocates it (“my caring for you will remain”), it’s just creepy. Despite the increased diversity of the human cast, many of the new aliens pick up uncomfortable racist tropes in their characterization. And while a common complaint is that the plot is boring in its focus on trade route taxation, I’d counter by saying that it’s actually a rather action-packed adventure that expects its viewers to jump right into the setting and come along for the ride, resulting in gaps in exposition that actually make that trade conflict, and the associated governmental and commercial bodies, rather muddled, simply dressing up a MacGuffin to get things going. (In general, one of my biggest complaints about the prequels as a whole is that they provide a lot more complicated galactic society but do a very poor job of properly framing how these complicated pieces actually function and fit together.)

Despite all that, it’s a really fun movie that takes risks both as a film and as an installment in the Star Wars saga, and it feels incredibly invested with the vision of George Lucas. It quickly introduces new characters that millions of people now relate to and admire deeply–including a character like Qui-Gon Jinn, who is given considerable humanity in this one-off appearance through the performance of Liam Neeson. More broadly, all of the performances are effective, and I would push back at those who claim that Ewan McGregor or Natalie Portman were stiff or wooden in their roles here. There’s a lot of affection and yet tension between McGregor’s Obi-Wan and his master. Portman is reserved and imposing as Queen Amidala, yet when she dons her handmaiden identity, she often allows herself to be frustrated, angry, affectionate, and engaged.  (Furthermore, the distant identity and elaborate clothing and makeup as Queen Amidala allow Padmé to use a handmaiden as her double–and it is impressively difficult to tell Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley apart when the makeup is on.) Ian McDiarmid is always incredible as Palpatine, and here we first got to see the mirage of a warm and endearing politician, even as McDiarmid portrays a depth of hidden meaning in his distant frowns and tiny smiles. If we look at Ahmed Best’s performance, and the special effects work that went into creating Jar Jar Binks, I think we could all agree that it’s impressive, even if you can’t get behind Jar Jar’s goofy slapstick or the uncomfortable echoes of minstrelsy. Ray Park is scary and compelling as Darth Maul, a character with an iconic visual design, and the fight scenes between Jedi and Sith are some of the best in the franchise–especially that final fight set to “Duel of the Fates,” which in turn has to be a franchise highlight for John Williams’s scores. Even Jake Lloyd does a good enough job as Anakin, despite having to deal with ridiculous lines like “Yipee!” His farewell with Pernilla August as his mother Shmi is a heartfelt, beautiful, earned moment that always touches me.

While I’m sure that some fans will look on The Phantom Menace with a special sort of purity, even as others continue to view it only with contempt, I’ll still enjoy it as an imperfect and unique episode in my favorite film franchise. I think, all in all, it’s stood up to the test of time better than many might have expected twenty years ago.

Review: Ahsoka

Ahsoka (Star Wars)Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ahsoka is a satisfying bridge tale that connects the dots in Ahsoka’s life between where we left her at the end of the Clone Wars and where we found her in Rebels. It’s also a pretty decent character study of Ahsoka, and I felt like the spirit of the character was really captured. For that matter, what time we have with Bail Organa is a real treat, as Johnston has portrayed him as charming, calculating, maybe a little exhausted, and compassionate yet wary. He felt pitch-perfect to me.

The story itself is a fine adventure that introduces us to elements from Rebels like the Inquisitors and the nascent Rebel Alliance. We also get a fair amount of completely new characters, planets, and ideas that continue to make that galaxy far, far away feel like a very real and very big place. I rather liked most of the new characters as well, from the farmers of Raada to the Fardis smuggling family. By the novel’s conclusion, I shipped Ahsoka and her new farmer friend Kaeden, for what that’s worth.

By the way, on finishing, I did go back and re-read Johnston and Ashley Eckstein’s “By Whatever Sun” in From A Certain Point Of View, and I found that I enjoyed the story much more this time around. It’s a rather satisfying epilogue to the story of Kaeden and Miara.

I obviously didn’t race through this book, but I enjoyed reading it, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Ahsoka or the Filoni animated shows.

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