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Wednesday, October 17, 2018 04:20 PM
(Last updated on Wednesday, October 17, 2018 07:37 PM)
Book Report - Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester
 by Fëanor

John Darnielle is better known as the heart and brains of a band called The Mountain Goats (who are great, by the way), but he has also written two novels, both of which are freakish, bizarre, puzzle-like, and completely unclassifiable. The first, Wolf in White Van, is about a man named Sean Phillips with a debilitating disfigurement that he acquired during an incident when he was a teen, an incident which the whole book revolves around. What happened, and why? You will eventually discover the answer to the former question, but the latter is more complex and is never explicitly answered. You have to provide the answer yourself from what you learn of Sean, through a non-chronological series of scenes from various parts of his life, both before and long after the incident. In between these moments from Sean's life are inserted scenes from a post-apocalyptic play-by-mail text adventure game which the main character designed and runs. The game ends up figuring largely in another tragic incident that happens later in his life.

Wolf in White Van is about the secret pain people carry in their hearts and the inexplicable and horrific acts that pain can lead them to perform. It also looks at life as a complex web of interconnected choices, each one shunting you off into a new story. Sometimes every choice is a terrible one, and all you can do is try to choose the least terrible.

Universal Harvester seems at first as if it's going to be a piece of straight genre fiction - namely, horror. Customers of the Video Hut in a small Iowa town in the eighties begin to return movies with odd complaints. They say there are other movies on the tapes. In fact, strange, disturbing footage which seems to involve torture has been spliced into the middle of bland Hollywood fare. And some of the scenes include recognizable landmarks from nearby. Jeremy (an employee of the video store who lost his mother in a car accident some years ago), his father, his boss, and one of the customers of the video store (who Jeremy has a bit of a crush on) are all drawn into the mystery of the sickening, suggestive footage and eventually find its source: a lonely farmhouse, and the lonely woman who lives there, who has her own tragic past.

There are many deeply disturbing and chillingly suggestive sequences in Universal Harvester, and for most of the book you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop, and for a twisted religious cultist to leap forth and start dealing out grisly death. But if that's what you're looking for, don't read this book. What Universal Harvester ends up being about is (like Wolf in White Van) the secret pain that people carry in their hearts and the strange rituals they can find themselves engaging in to try to assuage that pain, to fill the hollow place inside them. It's about the ways people deal with life-destroying losses. It's about the deep and complex bond between parents and children and the awful scars that are left when that bond is suddenly snapped. It's also about the deep currents that can run just underneath the surface in small towns. Although there are plenty of creepy moments throughout, it's ultimately a very sad story about broken people. This does make the book a bit frustrating and disappointing; it feels like you're being promised one thing, and then the curtain is pulled back and what's actually there is something quite different. But it's still a very powerful story masterfully and beautifully told by Darnielle, who has an incredible way with words. Darnielle's books are gorgeous, intricate, grotesque mazes that you have to navigate carefully, lest the minotaur that lurks in them find and devour you.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not)
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Saturday, December 30, 2017 03:21 PM
On the Viewer - Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
 by Fëanor

I don't know if you guys heard, but a new Star Wars movie came out recently. Rian Johnson is the director this time. I was excited to hear he'd be in charge, as I've enjoyed his work on Brick and Looper. There's some controversy over his film, however - critics love it, but many fans are angry about what he's done to their beloved Star Wars.

The odd thing is, in a way, the film itself addresses these criticisms. It's a Star Wars film that's at least in part about Star Wars - about legends and stories, and the difficulty of telling them well: of knowing what to keep of what's come before, and what to change. It's about how we deal with the past, how we lead, how we fight our battles. It's about finding the balance we need to make our way through life. It's also got space battles, silly jokes, lightsaber fights, blue milk, rock lifting, and cute little bird-things called porgs. It's long, and perhaps it doesn't quite succeed at striking the balance it seeks between the new and the old, but it's still a pretty great Star Wars movie.

Be wary! From here on out, there be spoilers.

We open with one of those big Star Wars space battles - and a very familiar one, too. The Resistance, the location of its base having been revealed to the First Order at the end of the last movie, is evacuating, and the First Order is trying to blow its ships to pieces before they can escape. It's the start of a chase that will last basically throughout the whole rest of the movie.

In a tone-setting scene with some goofy comedy of a type we're not entirely used to seeing in Star Wars, hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) essentially prank calls General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) before singlehandedly wiping out the main cannons of a First Order dreadnought cruiser (the first appearance, I believe, of such a ship in a Star Wars movie, though it's not terribly different from the ridiculously massive, heavily armed, triangular spaceships we're used to seeing Star Wars bad guys tool around in). General Leia (the irreplaceable Carrie Fisher) is satisfied that this stunt will buy the fleet the time it needs to escape, but Poe wants more: he sees a chance to destroy the dreadnought completely, and he refuses to give up that chance. In an act of defiance that will setup his character arc for the film, as well as establish the continuing tension between him and the Resistance leadership, he demands, despite orders from Leia to the contrary, that his fellow pilots make a bombing run against the dreadnought.

We're used to seeing anonymous pilots explode in fireballs left and right in Star Wars space battles, but in this film, those deaths feel more real and more traumatic than usual. In part this is due to great performances, especially from Fisher. It's also due to the extraordinary number of heroic self-sacrifices in this movie, and the drama inherent in such acts. The gunner who sacrifices herself to make the bombing run a success is Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), and her act will have a strong effect on her sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), whom we'll meet later and learn a lot more about.

Though the bombing run is a success, the cost is high, and when Poe gets back, Leia rewards him with a slap in the face and a demotion from Commander to Captain. He protests that there were many heroes on that bombing run, and Leia replies, "Dead heroes. No leaders." As the story goes on, we realize she is grooming Poe for leadership, and is disappointed that he can't, as she says, "get your head out of your cockpit." The rest of Dameron's arc is him learning, slowly and painfully, the balance needed to be a true leader: knowing when it's time to retreat from the battlefield today so you can fight again tomorrow. Knowing when not to go in with all guns blazing. Knowing when to trust that your own superiors know what they're doing. Poe is rather annoying in this film actually, not least because he is a man constantly explaining to women in authority what it is he thinks they should do, with the implied assumption that they aren't capable of figuring it out on their own. It's never been a good look, but is particularly grating in 2017. In one scene Poe even tells the pilots of an escape craft to fly as fast as they can away from the people shooting at them, as if they weren't already obviously doing that. Thanks for your input, Captain Mansplainer! Eventually he gets so annoying Leia has to wake herself up out of a coma, drag herself off her sick bed, track him down, and stun him with a pistol to get him to stop. It's actually kind of a satisfying moment.

Before Poe gets that slap in the face, he's reunited with his bromantic partner Finn (John Boyega). Finn was, you'll remember, unconscious at the end of the last film, recovering from injuries sustained in his duel with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In a deliberately silly scene, he awakens suddenly in the middle of the space battle and goes wandering through the halls of the cruiser, naked except for a bag that's leaking (presumably healing) fluids. When Poe finds him, Finn's first question is, "Where's Rey?" so naturally we then cut to Rey (Daisy Ridley) right where we left her, handing that lightsaber to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). This time the scene continues, with that same unexpected lack of solemnity the film often has for its subject matter, with Luke taking the saber, tossing it casually over his shoulder, and stalking off wordlessly.

Thus begins a sequence familiar to any fan of martial arts films: the eager and irrepressible student pleading with the reluctant old master again and again to teach her, and enduring any and all hardships in her quest for knowledge, while the master steadfastly refuses her, until finally he's worn down by her persistence and agrees to teach her. It doesn't go exactly the way it usually goes in martial arts movies, but that's to be expected.

Luke, we learn, has come to this island - home to the first Jedi temple - to die. After his failure with Ben Solo and the destruction of his school, Luke has sentenced himself - and the Jedi order itself - to a slow and lingering execution. He has closed himself off from the Force and - as Rey discovers after following him about the island for a day or so - now spends his time fishing with a ridiculously long spear, milking a weird alien creature (in a scene that's funny in a really uncomfortable way), and brooding, not only on his own personal failures, but also on the failures of the Jedi as a whole. All of Luke's visitors try to convince him to return and help them defeat the First Order: first Rey, then Chewie, and finally even R2, who, in a deeply nostalgic and emotionally powerful scene, replays the original holographic message from Leia that first pulled Luke out of the desert backwater of Tatooine and out into the larger world. But Luke only refuses over and over, insisting that he cannot and will not help. He does finally agree to give Rey three lessons in the ways of the Jedi, but only so he can also explain why the Jedi must end.

He tells Rey that the Force is all about balance - the balance between extremes of life and death, of light and darkness. But he himself has become utterly unbalanced, wallowing in the past and dwelling on his failures, shutting himself off from all his friends and loved ones. He claims he wants the Jedi dead, but he's chosen their first temple as his place of banishment, and he reverently protects the resting place of the original Jedi texts. In a fit of pique, he threatens to destroy those texts, but cannot bring himself to actually do it. Luckily, an old friend appears and does the job for him. It's great to see Yoda again, taking on the guise of the silly, wise, prankish oldster we remember from our first meeting with him on Dagobah. He returns now to teach Luke yet another important lesson: that although there are things in the past worth keeping, dwelling on the past to the expense of the present and the future is foolish and destructive. And when we teach, we must pass on not only our strengths, but also - and in fact most importantly - our failures, so our students may learn not to make the same ones, and may eventually surpass us. We must find a balance, in other words, between the new and the old, between weakness and strength.

The thematic opposite of Luke in the film is Kylo Ren, or Ben Solo. When we see him first in this movie, his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (professional motion-capture-suit-wearer Andy Serkis), is supremely unimpressed with his student's performance in the previous film, and calls him "a child in a mask." Shamed, and still twisted and torn by his recent patricide, Ren destroys his mask and jumps into his starfighter with his face uncovered, to take his anger out on the Resistance fleet. But when he senses his mother in his crosshairs - and she in turn senses him - he finds he cannot pull the trigger. Unfortunately, the TIE pilots to either side of him have no such compunctions. They obliterate the bridge of the main Resistance cruiser, killing most of the leadership of the Resistance (including Admiral Ackbar, alas), and sending Leia spiraling out into space. Apparently this threat to her life triggers some innate, heretofore unknown Force ability that allows her to fly herself to safety. It's kind of a goofy visual, but also pretty neat, and makes me wish we could have seen more of Leia as a Jedi.

Although Leia survives, she's left in a coma, so the command of the Resistance falls to Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, in a rather disappointingly small role - although she does have great hair). Poe seems disappointed he's been passed over, and less than impressed with Holdo as a person, so it's not surprising that the two of them get off on the wrong foot from the very start. Poe pulls his old mansplaining act, giving Holdo plenty of unsolicited advice, demanding to know her plan, and even pretending to a higher rank than he actually has. Holdo's reaction is understandably negative, and my sympathy is almost entirely with her, although it is frustrating that she keeps secret from him her plan for saving the Resistance fleet. Why not tell Poe and the other pilots what she's doing, instead of making it appear that she's sitting idly by and allowing the fleet to be slowly destroyed? It seems to be a secret kept merely to create drama later on; a fed-up Poe even goes so far as to lead a mutiny - for which, I'd like to point out, he is never punished. Leia even seems to promote him before the end, ceding command to him during the final escape.

But we were talking about Kylo Ren. Internally, he's clearly still in turmoil, but outwardly he is determined to gain back Snoke's regard and to become the monster Rey accuses him of being. Rey and Ren seem to develop a mysterious connection that allows them to see and speak to each other even across the vast distances that separate them. So while Luke teaches Rey about the Light and pleads with her to reject the Darkness, Ren is there, too, to tempt her to the other side. Beneath the hatred there's definitely an attraction of some sort between Rey and Ren (as many shippers have noticed). At one point Rey psychically intrudes on Ren while he's shirtless and, in another unexpectedly funny moment, asks him if he could find anything to put on.

Ren is Luke's opposite in more ways than one. While Luke is trapped in the past, Ren wants only to charge forward into the future, forgetting the past entirely, killing and leaving behind all parents and teachers and leaders, to take the reins of control for himself and forge his own destiny. And he wants to take Rey with him.

And so Rey finds herself caught between Luke and Ren, desperately seeking balance and a place for herself in the world. She is still obsessed with her own past, so desperate to know the identity of her parents she will even dive into the domain of the Dark Side when it teases her with the possibility of that revelation. But she finds its promise empty and hollow. And she looks also to the future, just as desperate to find help to save the Resistance and destroy the First Order. Who will be the one to guide and help her - Luke Skywalker or Ben Solo? And which one of them is telling the truth about the night Luke's school was destroyed? Luke says Ben turned on him, and Ben says the opposite. But as with all other things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

As if this wasn't enough story, the movie follows yet another set of characters on their own adventure of discovery. Finn, after waking up to find Rey gone and the fleet in a desperate and seemingly hopeless retreat from the First Order, falls back on his old habit of running away from his problems, and tries to sneak off in an escape pod. He's caught in the act by maintenance worker Rose Tico, who feels doubly betrayed by his cowardice and treachery, given her sister's recent sacrifice, and that she looked up to Finn as a hero of the Resistance. In his attempt to convince her of the uselessness of remaining with the fleet, he reveals that the First Order has somehow found a way to track ships through hyperspace. But then the two of them, with their combined technical knowledge, manage to work up a theory, not only of how the tracking works, but of how it might be defeated and the fleet successfully escape. They come to Poe with their plan and Poe, still convinced he knows better than any of the women actually in charge, decides to secretly move forward with the idea without telling anybody. The problem is, they need a hacker to do the job right. He asks Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) for help, but she's busy with a "labor dispute" which involves a lot of shooting and flying around, so she recommends somebody else, an expert that Finn and Rose (with the help of Poe's droid, BB-8) will have to seek out in the casinos of Canto Bight.

Finn is at first dazzled by the riches and charm of Canto Bight, but Rose tells him to look closer. The splendor and beauty of the planet are built on the backs of a poorly treated, slave-like underclass, and the upperclass who enjoy the casinos make their money through arms dealing and war profiteering - selling death and destruction. It's a side of the Star Wars universe we rarely see.

Unable to connect with the hacker Maz recommended, Rose and Finn find themselves forced to accept the help of the shady thief DJ (Benicio del Toro). DJ has an interesting perspective on things. He points out to Finn that those arms dealers don't just sell to the "bad guys" - they sell to both the First Order and the Resistance. It's all a machine, he says, and his advice is not to pick one side or the other, but to simply not join at all - to be only on your own side. Finn and Rose will learn to their cost that DJ follows his own advice. He's found a middle way that works for him, but is devoid of morality, honor, and compassion. I find DJ's character pretty fascinating (despite his slightly irritating speech impediment), and I've always loved Benicio del Toro's acting, so I'm hopeful he will return in the next film in some capacity.

Before escaping back to the Resistance with Rose and BB-8, Finn gets to have it out finally with his old tormentor Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie, who we will, to my disappointment, apparently never get to actually see act outside of her armor in the movies, although we do get a glimpse of one of her eyes in this film - before she plummets into a fireball). Cornered in an old Rebel base and faced once again with the prospect of destruction at the hands of a pseudo-Death Star (this time a battering ram cannon), the Resistance looks at last defeated. But Finn refuses to run or to give up anymore, and tells the others it's time for a last ditch attack. So the few Resistance fighters that are left jump in some crummy old speeders (which are in such bad shape Poe literally puts his foot through the bottom of his) and charge a very intimidating First Order army.

It feels like one battle too many in a very long movie full of battles, and, what with the walkers and all, it also looks a little too much like the Battle of Hoth (even if one rather odd Resistance fighter helpfully points out, after tasting it, that the white stuff on the ground is not snow, but salt), but here we go again!

At this point, Poe has finally learned his lesson, and when he sees the tide turning against him and his fellow pilots, he orders a retreat, rather than pushing forward with another desperate suicidal attack. But Finn has not learned that lesson yet. He's not only found the courage not to run away, he's swung to the other extreme. He ignores all orders to retreat and aims himself right down the cannon's throat, determined not to let the bad guys win. But Rose has lost too much and flies in from the side at the last minute, knocking him out of the way of certain death. She tells him they'll win, not by destroying what they hate, but by protecting what they love. Then, just to make clear what it is she means, she kisses him.

So not only has Finn's love life just gotten a lot more complicated, he's also learned the same lesson our other heroes have: that life is about balance.

Rey, unable to convince Luke to come back with her, decides her last hope lies in turning Ben to the Light, and in the hopes of doing that, leaves Luke behind and surrenders herself to Ben Solo. He in turn gives her over to Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke rips the secret of Luke's location out of Rey and is confident he and his student will now at last see an end to the Resistance and the Jedi, beginning with Rey. He sets a last test for Ren: kill the girl.

Of course, Snoke has also just revealed that he manipulated both Ren and Rey to get to this moment, and the tormented Ren is thoroughly done with treacherous teachers. In a spectacular battle scene, he and Rey make an end of Snoke and all of his laser-weapon-wielding personal guard. It seems for a moment then that Ren will in fact turn and join Rey, but instead he asks her to join him in destroying everything - Resistance, First Order, Jedi - and taking over the galaxy together, just the two of them. But that's not a path she can walk. After a satisfyingly symbolic fight over Luke and Vader's old lightsaber, which ends with them splitting the weapon in half, Rey leaves Ren to rush back to Finn and the Resistance.

During this sequence, Ren answers a question that has been tormenting Rey - and many a Star Wars fan - for a long time: who are Rey's parents? He reveals what she's always secretly known: that they were actually nobody at all - just junk traders - and that they're never coming back for her. It's devastating, but also freeing. She can leave that part of her past behind. And I for one am deeply relieved. I like this revelation very much, especially insofar as it is not at all like the parenting revelations in previous Star Wars movies. Thank God Rey is not a Skywalker! We've had enough of the stories of Skywalkers and their surprise progeny. It's time to move on.

It's a little surprising and even disappointing (despite the thrilling nature of the death scene) to see the big bad, Emperor-type guy go down in the middle film of the trilogy, especially when his character and backstory still remain such a mystery. But perhaps this is setting up Ren to be the big villain in the final movie, and/or we'll learn more about Snoke in flashbacks.

I already enjoyed the bitchy, contentious relationship between General Hux and Kylo Ren in Force Awakens, and in this movie it gets even more entertaining. They've never agreed which one of them is really in charge, and when Hux finds Ren unconscious on the floor of Snoke's throne room, with Snoke's dismembered corpse lying nearby, he reaches for his pistol, hoping to decide things once and for all. When Ren wakes up, Hux puts the gun away again. Then Ren starts shouting orders. Hux objects, but a Force choke from Ren quickly changes his mind. I look forward to more of their squabbling in the next movie. Long live the Supreme Leader!

As Rey returns to her Resistance friends, she shows that she's learned enough about Ren to know how to push his buttons. Rey and Chewie fly the Millenium Falcon down into the middle of the final battle and draw off most of the First Order fighters, giving the Resistance a chance to attack (even if ultimately that attack fails). Ren just cannot resist sending his fighters after his father's old home. He needs to kill all the history embodied by that ship.

Of course, Luke also knows how to push Ren's buttons. In the final sequence of the film, Skywalker finally does come back into the world to save the Resistance - in a way. We're given a number of clues that he's not entirely what he seems. His face is younger than we've seen it recently - it looks more like the way it did the last time Ren saw him, the fateful night the school was destroyed. And the lightsaber Luke carries and duels Ren with is, impossibly, the blue-bladed one Ren and Rey have just destroyed, and not the green-bladed one Luke himself constructed and has wielded for years.

What Luke has decided to do is to give the world back the legend of Luke Skywalker, because he has realized it has its uses after all. It can give hope to the downtrodden, and maybe it can even "light the spark that will burn down the First Order." It can also give the Resistance time to escape out the backdoor of that old Rebel base - as well as royally piss off Kylo Ren. So not Luke himself, but a Force projection of Luke steps out and faces down not just Kylo Ren, but the entire First Order. When the enraged Kylo orders all guns to fire at his old master, the untouchable Luke steps out of the smoke and brushes dust off his shoulder in one of the more mythically bad-ass Star Wars moments.

Luke has found his balance, his middle way. When Ren insists that soon the Resistance and the Jedi will all be dead, Luke can confidently state that no, he's wrong. The Resistance will go on, and Luke will not be the last Jedi. Rey carries with her both Luke's strengths, and the knowledge of his failures, and armed with those, she and the Resistance have hope. Plus she can lift rocks like a bad-ass.

The Force-projected duel against Ren costs Luke more than he has to give, and he vanishes shortly after, becoming one with the Force. In the final scene, the little stable boys on Canto Bight are telling Luke Skywalker's story, reenacting, with their own homemade action figures, his mythical standoff with the First Order. Interrupted in this play by his master and tormentor, one of the boys steps out into the night and picks up a broom (or does the broom jump toward his hand, as if called there by some force?) and stares up into the starry sky, full of hope and wonder.

It's a beautiful scene, and I see it as Rian Johnson's love letter to the story of Star Wars itself - the legend of a farm boy who flies out into the stars and discovers he's much stronger than he ever knew; that maybe his actions can help save the galaxy from evil. It's a story that can give hope to people even during the worst of times.

The new trilogy so far has indeed been making some small progress in killing the past. We lost Han in Force Awakens, and now Luke (and Admiral Ackbar) in Last Jedi. And with Carrie Fisher gone, we will have to lose Leia, as well - a loss that will presumably have to be explained in the next movie, as Johnson decided to let her performance stand as it was in this film. That's all three of the classic trilogy's main heroes gone. The baton must now be passed to the new heroes - Rey and Finn and Poe and Rose and maybe even Ben/Kylo - and I feel confident they will carry it well.

Before his final duel with Ren, Luke has a quick scene with Leia, where he gets to apologize for failing her and her son (it's about time!), and to give her a little hope. In the film, Luke is referring to Han when he says, "No one's ever really gone," but the fact that it's also Mark Hamill talking to Carrie Fisher gives the scene even more power than it would otherwise have had. Our Princess and our General, she will indeed never really be gone. She lives on in these great films, for one.

Johnson sought balance in the way he told his Star Wars story - taking what was best from the old films, but setting aside their mistakes and learning from them - focusing the story more on POC and women, for one thing. There were maybe a few more story elements taken from the old films than was totally necessary, but all in all, I think he struck a pretty fine balance, and told a great story - a Star Wars story. It will not be the last story told about Jedi - not by a long shot. And thank God for that.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Thursday, August 31, 2017 05:21 AM
Another Poem
 by Fëanor

Not sure if I like how this one came out, but I'm posting it anyway. See what you think. It's a villanelle.

The Thing About Mistakes

One thing, at least, is good about mistakes:

We learn by them how not to live our lives.

These errors made but once, we won't remake.


Each day our agonies are fresh, our aches

Are newly forged, as bright and sharp as knives.

One thing, at least, is good about mistakes.


This poison drunk in haste our thirst will slake

For testing what our bodies can survive.

These errors made but once, we won't remake.


Perhaps a time or two our hearts will break,

But surely love will help us to revive.

One thing, at least, is good about mistakes.


The searing words I spat for anger's sake

I won't repeat - will I? - while I'm alive.

These errors made but once, we won't remake.


Oh we'd be victims of the cruelest jape

To wrong each wrong again a hundred times.

One thing there must be good about mistakes.

But errors, once they're made, we make and make.
Tagged (?): Poetry (Not)
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Wednesday, August 9, 2017 07:26 PM
(Last updated on Tuesday, March 27, 2018 10:16 AM)
It's been a while. How about a sonnet?
 by Fëanor

I hadn't written anything in a long while and I was starting to feel pretty down, so I banged out a sonnet. Hope you like.

Epistolary

To whom it may concern, as dear to me

as air: my doubt of you's a sour stone,

a serpent 'round my heart. Your ghost, at sea

Might swallowed be to wander halls of bone,

Your jail the whale that made you: 'prisoned wraith

From bottled boat, excreted fantasy.

However, if this note were sent in faith

It might be found and caught between your teeth.

It takes a mouth, an ear, so many words

To lay this revenant. But if I speak,

To prove your life, will fog of breath just blur

A mirror's glass? Whose feet set boards to creak?

Whose hand is this I hold? I am sincere

In this, at least: I wish that you were here.
Tagged (?): Poetry (Not)
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Friday, February 3, 2017 09:06 AM
(Last updated on Monday, February 6, 2017 03:34 PM)
I Wrote a Book!
 by Fëanor

Well, I wrote the book a while ago. And then my brother drew and colored pictures to go with. And then he made a couple of physical copies just for us. But now! You can go and buy it yourself! On Amazon! It's only an eBook for now, but we're going to look into making it possible to buy a physical, printed copy, too. Anyway, here it is!

Ballyhoo, and Mom's Other Tigers

It's a children's book, in verse, about tigers, sort of. If you do purchase it, and like it, please leave a review on Amazon! I understand good reviews are a great way to help us generate further interest and more sales. Thanks much!

UPDATE: And now it's also available in paperback!
Tagged (?): Animals (Not), Books (Not), Children (Not), Personal (Not), Poetry (Not)
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Friday, December 16, 2016 07:12 PM
(Last updated on Tuesday, December 20, 2016 10:24 AM)
On the Viewer - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
 by Fëanor

TL;DR - Despite some weird choices and missing details, this is a great movie.

The first of the standalone, spin-off, non-"Episode" Star Wars movies has been released! Rogue One sits in a territory of the timeline that is already being effectively mined by the animated series Star Wars Rebels: the period between Episode III and Episode IV, when the Empire is spreading and gaining power, and the Rebellion is still a scrappy little thing seeking its first big success. It focuses specifically on the small team of misfits that pull together against all odds to steal the plans to the first Death Star. In fact, (spoiler?) the movie takes us right up to the opening second of A New Hope, and features various cameos from that film's cast of characters - sometimes even going so far as to include creepy computer-generated recreations of the actors, or actual footage from the movie.

One of the more interesting things about Rogue One is that it gives us a different perspective on the Rebellion than we're used to. The original trilogy of Star Wars films is fairly black and white: the Rebels and the Jedi are the Good Guys, and the Imperials and the Sith are the Bad Guys. Sure, there are Han and Lando, who do questionable things, but they're the exceptions that prove the rule - a couple of rough and tumble dudes who are ultimately transformed and choose to join the Rebellion when they see it's the right thing to do. The Alliance itself is presented as a kind of monolith - a group of good people united to do good.

Things get a bit more complex in the prequels, as these films are the story of good things going bad - a Republic rotting from the inside and becoming an Empire (sounds familiar!), and a great Jedi falling and becoming twisted into a Sith Lord. But still, there's not a lot of gray area; Anakin and the Republic are good, and then a switch is flipped and they are bad.

What Rogue One gives us is an Alliance that isn't as allied, or as good and pure, as what we've seen in the past. These Rebels are fractious, with their own internal politics, intrigues, and warring factions. One of the first Rebels we meet, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) does very questionable things in service of the Alliance. So questionable that he himself cannot look back at them, and must always move forward, trusting that the end will justify the means (which is a pretty morally and ethically shaky stance for a Star Wars hero). Later, at a Rebel council, we see how at odds the various heads of the movement are, and how easily the whole resistance could have fallen apart in despair and hopelessness right at its beginnings. But hope is what the film is all about: hope that we can see our loved ones again, hope that we can redeem ourselves, hope that we can make a difference, hope that we can somehow stop the darkness, no matter the cost. The "New Hope" from the title of Episode IV starts here - is born here, with the selfless and desperate actions of a group of people thrown together by fate (or the Force?) who seek only to stop the rise of the horrible, destructive, all-encompassing power of the Empire and its terrible new weapon, the Death Star.

Another interesting new perspective that Rogue One gives us is a view of the Star Wars universe through the lens of the ordinary people in it, instead of through the lens of a heroic prophesied Jedi. In fact, for the first time, this is a Star Wars story that has no Jedi in it at all. Donnie Yen's blind mystic warrior, Chirrut Îmwe, appears to be at least Force-sensitive, but as his close friend and partner, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), points out, he is no Jedi - because there are no Jedi anymore. Despite that, a faith in the Force flourishes among the Rebels, and it is much more like a religion here than it has ever been in the other films, where it was more a super power than anything else.

(Time for a plot summary! Mild spoilers follow.)

The central character of the film is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a girl orphaned by the Empire, raised by a rebel even among the Rebels - the warrior Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) - and then cast off into the world to fend for herself. Jyn believes in little except her own survival, and is resigned to the world the way it is - under Imperial control - until she has hope kindled in her again by a message carried by defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). The message is from her long-lost father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), and it reveals that he is still alive, still loves her, and is not truly the traitor he appears to be. In fact, he has hidden a fatal flaw in the heart of the Imperial superweapon he's helped build, if only the Rebels can acquire the plans, and find an opportunity to exploit it. (It's a pleasing revelation that the design flaw in the Death Star was actually put there on purpose by the Rebel sympathizer who was forced to help build the thing.)

Even speaking as a die hard Star Wars fan, I have to admit that the series has never been big on complex characters or deep characterization. Anakin/Vader, as examined over the course of six (now seven!) films, probably ends up being the most complex and deeply realized character in this universe, despite the fact that he starts out in A New Hope as little more than a mysterious black-clad uber villain (albeit the daddy of them all). That being said, The Force Awakens made a successful attempt at deeper characterization, especially with Finn and Rey. Rogue One makes that attempt again, but it goes less well. Part of the reason is simply that there are so many characters, and so much story to tell, that there's little screen time available to devote to backstory and development for them all. By the end of the movie, I didn't feel like I'd really gotten to know any of our main cast. We only get the barest glimpses at their pasts and motivations. Jyn is the person we learn the most about, and I still felt like I was missing important information about her. The good side of this is, we want to know more about these people. They are intriguing, and clearly have fascinating pasts. I'd particularly like to know Captain Andor's story. He clearly has done some horrific things for the Alliance, and they haunt him.

Another good thing about this big cast: it's quite diverse. We've got a woman as the main character, accompanied by a Hispanic man, a black man, a couple of Asian men, and a Pakistani man. The people in charge at the Empire are white, but it seems clear that there's a point being made there - they're Nazis, after all. The Alliance has a lot of white guys, too, but they also have women, aliens, and black and brown people on their ruling council, as well as black and brown people among their ground soldiers.

Probably the greatest character in the film, however, is not any of the humans or aliens. It is instead Captain Andor's sidekick, the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). The droid is a sarcastic, pessimistic, wise-cracking misanthrope, and it's hilarious and fantastic.

More mild spoilers: one of the things I found most disconcerting and odd about the movie was the decision to use computer technology to resurrect Peter Cushing so that he could reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin. Similarly weird was the inclusion of Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia in the final shot, made young again through computer technology. This was very distracting and totally unnecessary. The filmmakers could easily have found actors who looked and sounded like Cushing and a young Fisher and put them in the roles. We're smart people, used to different actors playing the same part; we would have been able to figure it out.

Rogue One is a Star Wars movie that takes a hard look at the filthy reality and the hard costs of war. It is a dark and a brutal story, but it offers us the promise that with these peoples' many sacrifices, a terrible evil will be destroyed, and future people will live in freedom and peace. And sometimes that's the best we can hope for.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Wednesday, May 4, 2016 12:59 PM
Book Report - Lovecraft Country
 by Fëanor

This audio book I just listened to was so great I thought I'd swipe the mothballs off the old blog to write it up.

The popularity of weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft only seems to increase as the years go by. But so does scrutiny of his racist politics and beliefs, which were so often given such lurid life in his writing. One of the things Lovecraft found most horrifying, for instance, was miscegenation. For many years a bust of Lovecraft was presented to the winner of the World Fantasy Award, but just last year the bust was retired due to Lovecraft's history of racism.

I love Lovecraft's work, but had of course always been deeply uncomfortable with his racism. I hadn't heard of a modern interpretation of Lovecraft's horror universe that dealt in any meaningful way with this topic - until I read about Matt Ruff's novel Lovecraft Country. Lovecraft Country not only deals with the topic, but makes it its central theme. The book's purpose, in fact, is to wrest ownership of Lovecraft's universe away from its racist beginnings and place it firmly in the hands of people of color. (I'm a little disappointed, therefore, to have discovered after the fact that the author, Matt Ruff, is white. It seems like this story was for a person of color to tell. But there you are.)

The novel is set in America in 1954, and is told as a series of short stories, each an episode in a larger, over-arching story, each with a different narrator, with the final chapter bringing all the narrators and stories together in an exciting climax. All the narrators are members of, or close friends with, the Turner family. The novel opens with the story of Atticus Turner, a young black man still trying to find his place in American society after returning from serving in the Korean War. He receives an odd letter from his estranged father, Montrose, about a secret birthright that he's entitled to, and he decides to head home to Chicago to see what it's all about.

If you're expecting magic and monsters in the first few pages, you'll be disappointed. Ruff takes his time getting to that, first introducing you to the surreal insanity and horror that is the Jim Crow South. On his way home, Atticus is assaulted, harassed, and stolen from by a policeman for the crime of being black. As the story goes on, and incidents like this are repeated again and again, we come to realize that threats to your life and property from white men with power are just a part of everyday life for black people in America. And yes, sure, we should all already know that. But being a white guy, I need constant reminders, and Ruff forces you to really examine and internalize what it must be like to live like that: in constant fear, in constant danger of death, with little or no recourse to the law, the whole world against you, hating you and suspecting you on sight.

And that's just the baseline of horror in Atticus' world! As his story progresses, things get even more dangerous, and way more weird. A mysterious, untouchable, silver car with tinted windows seems to follow him everywhere as his search for his father takes him through a maze-like forest - where unseen things lurk in the shadows - to a tiny, insular town called Ardham. Ardham isn't Lovecraft's Arkham - not quite - but it is in "Lovecraft Country" (New England). And it is the home of a Manor House on a hill, where the Braithwhite family lives, leaders of a sect of a secret cult called The Order of the Ancient Dawn.

I won't tell you any more about the plot, because experiencing it for yourself will be fun as hell. But it includes intrigue, theft, espionage, double-dealing, murder, magic, devil dolls, ghosts, potions, curses, body-switching, and man-eating aliens. And still, even among all this weirdness and horror, we never lose sight of the novel's real focus: the real-life horror of being black in America. So not only is it a rollicking read - a brilliant, thrilling, enthralling, bone-chilling story - it's also a very important and powerful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Lovecraft (Not)
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Friday, December 18, 2015 04:31 PM
On the Viewer - Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (No Spoilers)
 by Fëanor

Thought I'd dust off the old blog to do a quick, spoilerless write-up of the new Star Wars.

The Bad: OK, let's get the negative stuff out of the way first. The movie has two major flaws: lazy writing, and a tendency to slavishly repeat character relationships, dialog, and other elements from the original trilogy. The former is a typical flaw in gigantic blockbuster movies of this kind. There's a McGuffin at the center of the story that just doesn't really make a lot of sense, and one or two other plot twists that seem a tad contrived. But the second flaw is the larger one. At first it's fun recognizing the echoes from the original trilogy, but as the movie goes on, it starts to feel less like the filmmakers are simply referencing the preceding trilogy and carrying on its themes, and more like they're desperately trying to repeat it in every particular in order to recapture its magic and success.

The Good: All that being said, let me add, the filmmakers actually do a pretty damn good job of recapturing the magic of the original trilogy. For the first half of this movie I just sat there staring at the screen with this gigantic grin on my face that just wouldn't go away. Multiple times I clapped and cheered along with the rest of the audience - as the familiar Lucasfilm logo materialized; as the "A long time ago..." epigraph appeared; as beloved old characters were reintroduced; as the new characters did something amazing.

Speaking of those new characters, John Boyega's Finn and Daisy Ridley's Rey are a delight, and absolutely the best thing about the movie. They are real, warm, human, sympathetic characters, funny and likable, with involving and fascinating stories. Make no mistake: The Force Awakens is not one of the much maligned prequels. There's no awkward dialog and wooden performances. This movie is so much fun - so funny and entertaining. The visual spectacle is awe-inspiring, the special effects are gorgeous and amazing, the action scenes are breathtaking. The Force! Lightsabers! Spaceships! Lasers! WOO!!

Ahem. The point is, this is a Star Wars movie. A real, good, old-fashioned Star Wars movie, like the ones I fell in love with when I was a kid, and have loved ever since with all of my heart. And I cannot wait to see the next one.

Spoilers: OK, so I lied, there are a couple spoilers here. But I'll white them out for you. Highlight if you'd like to see them.

OH MY GOD THEY KILLED HAN!!!! I mean, it worked. It made sense as part of the story. But man. How am I going to show that scene to my son?? I'm gonna have to cover his eyes or something.

The McGuffin I was talking about above is the map to Luke. Why would somebody have part of a map to a guy? And if R2 had almost the entire thing the whole time, why didn't he speak up earlier? And who was Max von Sydow supposed to be? It seemed like we were supposed to know him. And how do you get such a great actor, and then kill him off immediately?

But man, how about John Boyega? A stormtrooper who has a crisis of conscience and switches sides. What a fantastic idea! And he plays it so well. And Rey! What's her story? Why did her parents leave her? Who were they? (If they turn out to be Skywalkers, too, I'll be pissed. Damn Skywalker family.)

I'm really fascinated by the character of Kylo Ren. He seems like such a bad-ass at first, doing these amazing things with the Force that we've never seen before. But as the film goes on, we start to realize he's just a confused, angry child. And really that's what the Dark Side is and should be seen to be: childish, selfish, bratty. Just a bunch of dudes having super-powered tantrums.

What is the deal with Snoke? Is he actually a giant or does he just project himself in holograms that way to be impressive? And Luke! So good to see him at last! I'm so, so curious to see how the next movie plays out, with Snoke completing Ren's training, and Luke hopefully training Rey (and maybe Finn?? Will he turn out to be a Jedi, too?). I'm so excited!
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Sunday, May 17, 2015 04:49 PM
(Last updated on Sunday, May 17, 2015 04:52 PM)
On the Viewer - Mad Max: Fury Road
 by Fëanor

I know everybody and their brother has written something about this movie already, but whatever, now it's my turn.

I've always loved the Mad Max movies. The first one is probably the weakest, but still good, and they keep getting better from then on. The latest is the ultimate essence of the series.

The first film showed us a world on the brink of falling apart, already with only the barest elements of law and order left, already ravaged by gangs of wild, violent, amoral men. In the succeeding films, society has collapsed completely into savagery and mysticism. The remaining people are either terrorized or terrorists. They are all battered and traumatized, freakish and poisoned. They've gathered into desperate cults and gangs, roaming the wasteland in search of gasoline, water, and a rumored paradise that probably doesn't exist.

Max, despite always appearing in the title, is rarely the center of the story, but a lone, hungry wolf that stalks through someone else's story and then vanishes, a presence that everyone in that story becomes aware of and wants to use for their own purposes: a savior, a weapon, a blood bag. As he haunts the dead world, he in turn is haunted by his own ghosts: the people he couldn't save, the horrors he's seen. He is a witness of the story, and eventually a reluctant participant in it.

At the beginning of Fury Road, Max (a grunting, near wordless Tom Hardy) has been reduced to one instinct: survival. He's an animal. He has no hope. He's lost everything. He'll just do whatever awful thing he needs to do to keep going. But then he meets Imperator Furiosa (a stunning, unrecognizable Charlize Theron; if Max is the eyes of the movie, she's the heart). At first they're enemies, for the simple reason that they are both dangerous and in each other's way. But then they find they need each other's help. Totally against his will, Max becomes a part of her quest - a jailbreak, a return home, and a search for redemption. He watches her story. He sees her lose the thing she had been hoping for so desperately, hears her howl of despair and rage, and recognizes it. He made that sound himself a long time ago. He tells her it's a mistake to hope. But then, he sees her go on, keep trying, and finds he has begun to hope again, too. He helps her, saves her life, and in the process, comes back to life again himself. But he doesn't stay. He moves on. Still and always running.

I said that Max was a witness of the story, and in one scene he is actually explicitly asked to witness. The road warriors in the cult of Immortan Joe and his hideous family follow a kind of Viking berserker religion in which, when they believe they are about to die for the cause and go to Valhalla, they spray shiny silver paint on their mouths and call upon their brothers to witness their sacrifice. It is a weird, horrific, beautiful, deeply realized world, with surreal, jaw-dropping fever-dream visuals. A world of endless peril and danger, a hypersonic dance on a flaming knife's edge, where survival is so difficult and all-encompassing that everything is reduced to essentials; to rituals and superstitions. Who protects me? Which of the people and things that are precious to me can I protect? What magic must I do to make God listen?

Mad Max: Fury Road is a story about women who take a desperate chance to steal back their freedom and their humanity, and a guy who ends up tagging along. It's also a fast-motion, heart-thrashing, freakshow thrill ride that will rip your face off and leave you gasping for air. It's one of the most amazing spectacles I've ever witnessed. Witness it yourself.
Tagged (?): Mad Max (Not), Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not)
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Monday, February 23, 2015 02:15 PM
On the Viewer - The Legend of Korra: Book Four - Balance
 by Fëanor

I looked back and saw I'd never written up the last season of Korra! Seemed like a terrible oversight, so here I am. I'm going to get a little spoilery here, but this show is pretty old now, so I think I'm allowed.

The show creators start the season off with one of those crazy, gutsy moves they do so often and so well: they jump ahead in time three years from the end of the last season! As the episode goes on, we slowly figure out what all our heroes have been up to. Mako is now the rather unwilling bodyguard of the pampered, self-important Prince Wu, who is about to take the reigns of the Earth Kingdom (or at least, so he believes). We also find out why they made a big show of introducing us to Kuvira at the end of last season (a scene which felt weird to me at the time): she has now become a huge power in the Earth Kingdom and is (not to put too fine a point on it) this season's villain. She calls herself the Great Uniter, and is bringing order to the lawless Earth Kingdom. But it's order without freedom and peace without choice. Like many others, Bolin, Varrick and Zhu Li have been taken in by Kuvira's pretty speeches and are helping her take over - which makes Bolin's relationship Opal complicated, as Opal hates Kuvira.

But of course, the big question is, where's Korra? The answer is revealed in the shocking end to the first episode: she's lied to her friends about where she is and what she's been doing, and she's hidden herself away in a backwater town, telling no one there her true identity. She's spending her time fighting - and losing! - earthbending cage matches.

In episode two, a flashback explains how Korra got here, and again I was impressed with the show's creators for not just pushing on from last season's story like it never happened. In fact, Korra is deeply scarred both physically and emotionally by her battle with Zaheer and her near death at his hands. Physical therapy eventually heals her body (mostly), but she finds it much harder to get over the fear and the block in her mind, and she is haunted by the dark specter of herself as she was when she fought Zaheer - a ghost that actually physically attacks her. The imagery is incredibly powerful: Korra fighting her old self, being pulled inescapably into the past to relive the fight with Zaheer over and over.

Luckily for Korra, she runs into Toph Beifong (yay, Toph!), Aang's old earthbending teacher. She's been hiding out in a swamp, communing with the Earth and avoiding everybody, because she's now a super grouchy old lady. She shows Korra some tough love and helps her to finish her physical healing. But even now, Korra is not magically fixed. There is still a final mental component to her injuries that she has not fully dealt with. It's hard to watch Korra in so much pain for so much of this season, being defeated over and over again, but it's all in service of character and story, and it's a powerful commentary on trauma and healing.

One of my favorite characters, Varrick, gets to shine again this season, and his relationship with Zhu Li finally gets to the next level, which is great to see. The rather infamous clip show episode "Remembrances" (which, as I understand it, the creators were forced to do in order to avoid firing anybody after Nickelodeon cut their budget) is saved only by Varrick's ridiculous action movie retelling of previous events.

Korra's team-up with Zaheer is unexpected and interesting, as is Asami's reconciliation with her father. The final epic battle against Kuvira's forces, led by her incredible, gigantic, spirit-vine-powered mecha battle suit, takes three whole episodes to complete and is exciting and impressive in the extreme. When it's all over, again a tremendous change has come over the world: the explosion of spirit energy has led to the creation of a new spirit portal. This season also reminds us over and over again that the villains Korra fights are never just evil for the sake of evil. Zaheer and Hiroshi both end up helping our heroes. Even Kuvira was trying to do what she thought was right, and in the end is penitent.

But maybe the biggest and most important moment in the entire Legend of Korra series happens at the very end of the last episode, when Korra walks off into the sunset not with Mako or with any other man, but with Asami. They don't quite go so far as to have Asami and Korra kiss onscreen, but that they now have a romantic relationship is strongly implied. In other words, this cartoon has a female bisexual hero. That's amazing! I don't think it's completely unprecedented, but nearly. When I watched that final scene, I felt like I was watching a really important part of television history. Progress!

Book Four is probably the best season of Korra, and really pulls together all the characters and stories from previous seasons in a powerful way. There's also plenty of room for more stories in this world - about Korra and Asami's adventures in the Spirit World, or about the next Avatar, or previous Avatars, or what have you - and I hope we get to see some of those stories eventually.
Tagged (?): Avatar (Not), Cartoons (Not), Legend of Korra (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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