Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

Katie and I saw Last Jedi opening night, of course, and this was my initial, knee-jerk, non-spoiler reaction: mixed feelings. Some aspects I loved; some I wasn't so sure about. Some comedy was lol; some fell flat. Some emotional beats gave me #allthefeels; some felt unearned. Some plot points confusing but mostly good tension that kept me guessing.

It's a long movie with a lot going on so it has taken me longer than usual to unpack and process. After a second viewing, though, and much discussion, I am now ready to share my full review. WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW! OK, let's do this thing.


  • Let's start with the obvious: this is an audiovisual tour de force. Both times I have seen it have been in IMAX and it has simply been breathtaking - literally! During the silent period during which Holdo's ship light speeds through Snoke's, there were audible gasps all around me.
  • The movie doesn't just look beautiful; the score is amazing as well. John Williams has come through once again. This time he didn't invent any iconic new themes, but he did blend many familiar ones in ways that really heighten the emotional impact of what is happening on screen.
  • The actors brought their A games. There are several emotional scenes and, because the actors killed it, I had all the feels.
  • Last Jedi features some of the best action we've seen yet in the Star Wars universe. Rey and Kylo's fight against the Praetorian Guards was very well choreographed and I loved Kylo and Luke's Samurai / Western standoff on Crait. By giving each character a distinct fighting style they illuminate the differences between them. I also enjoyed Poe's aerobatics more in this movie because they weren't undercut by the extremely contrived, "That's one hell of a pilot," as the were in The Force Awakens. In Last Jedi we get to see what makes him "the best pilot in the Resistance." 
  • There are some genuinely LOL moments (although I'll discuss the downside of them in the BAD section).
  • Yoda returns to form as a puppet and as a whimsical, laughing, old Jedi. I missed this version of him!
  • I'm really glad that Rey's parents turned out to be nobodies. I think the message that you don't have to be born into a "pureblood" family to be strong with the Force is a really great one - and is reinforced by the child we see at the end.
  • The film sets up payoffs far in advance. For example, Kylo says to Rey that she can't be Force projecting herself across such great distance because the effort would kill her. Much later, Luke Force projects himself across a great distance . . . and the effort kills him. Luke tells Rey early on that everything she said was wrong . . . and then tells Kylo the same thing at the end. I appreciate the attention to these little details.
  • While The Force Awakens featured many familiar beats that seemed repetitive, familiar beats in Last Jedi were often subverted. Snoke's throne room showdown, defending a base against ground assault on a white planet, etc. - these are all things that seem familiar but then, to paraphrase Luke, they don't go the way we think. In such a way, these beats "rhyme with" previous beats rather than repeat them. The repeated subversion of our expectations also builds good tension.
  • One way in which expectations are subverted is that, in multiple subplots, our protagonists actually fail to achieve their objectives, which I really like. Because Star Wars is more fantasy fairy tale than it is sci fi, we come to expect our exceptional heroes always to win out - and it really throws us for a loop when they don't. That's refreshing and, moreover, it is thoroughly coherent with one of the movie's messages that it is OK to fail.
  • It was a bold move to kill off not only the primary antagonist (and before the third act!) but also the greatest hero of the franchise. I appreciate that this movie took more risks than The Force Awakens - although not all of them paid off (See below.).
  • I remain really impressed that, after 40 years and eight films, they are still innovating creatures and vehicles. Every movie features some interesting new stuff and this one is no exception.
  • I'm far from the only person to call this out but the Canto Bight subplot didn't work for me. It felt like a monolithic side quest that took a lot of time and really didn't add much to the narrative or characters. Moreover, I was really underwhelmed by their entire realization of Canto Bight. Given an infinite budget and the goal to create a galactic version of a casino planet, what do we get? Basically a terrestrial casino with a slight alien "skin" over it. Really disappointing and not very creative at all.  
  • Although I found some of the comedy pretty funny, I found much of it to be tonally incoherent. In a film that did a good job building tension, setting the stakes, and bringing real gravitas to the plot, I too often found myself pulled out of the movie by jarring humor that just didn't seem to fit.
  • The other side of the expectation subversion coin is that I felt the movie tried too hard - and too frequently - to introduce "twists." From the opening bombing run to the throne room showdown, to Holdo's light speed maneuver, the film tries over and over again to lure you into thinking things will go one way only to reveal that they unsurprisingly are going the opposite way. This trope gets old very quickly for me. Some reveals I thought were fantastic - like Luke Force projecting himself - but these myriad others were cheaper and generally unnecessary.
  • The basis for a major portion of the plot makes no sense. Fuel isn't necessary to maintain a constant speed in space; it is necessary to accelerate (and possibly maintain basic ship functions). If the Resistance ships were lighter and faster than the star destroyers, they should have been able to run away from them. I don't lean too hard on sci fi movies to get everything right, but this is really basic.
  • I didn't buy the Rose-Finn romance at all. It came out of nowhere and seemed completely unearned. It also seemed cheap that Rose - a career mechanic - was able to pilot a snow speeder deftly at the end. Because . . . the plot required it I guess?
  • For the second movie in a row, Domhnall Gleeson was completely wasted. Hux went from being a total caricature of a petulant child (with poor writing to boot!) in The Force Awakens to being a total caricature of a petulant child and a foil for comic relief in Last Jedi. It makes no sense that this character would be a general at all.
  • And speaking of wasted actors, it was nice to see Gwendoline Christie get a little more screen time in this film but she was still largely wasted. Other than cool armor (Why don't all the storm troopers have it since it seems to be the only armor that actually protects against blaster bolts??) her character doesn't bring much to the narrative and that's a shame.
  • The worst part of this movie by far was the Holdo-Poe subplot, which felt ridiculous and entirely manufactured. Poe has been described as the best pilot in the Resistance and he is clearly a leader among his squad. It seems entirely goofy to me that he and Leia would not be on the same page regarding the objectives of his squad's mission (evacuate safely, not destroy the dreadnought) and then everything he does after that seems even more contrived. We really didn't see much of Poe in The Force Awakens so I can't claim that this writing is incoherent with his established character; it just didn't seem very believable to me.
  • On top of a manufactured conflict from Poe, Holdo then seems written in an equally unbelievable way. She is condescending and insulting to Poe and then she is deliberately keeping her crew in the dark about her plans (She then chastises Poe for doing the same thing.), which is piss poor leadership in a crisis situation. You can do some mental gymnastics to explain away her behavior but it also feels very contrived.
  • The entire point of this sub-plot seems to have been to teach Poe a lesson - but what lesson? That the Resistance should strive for blind obedience to authoritarianism - the very thing that they are fighting??
  • The consequence of this subplot is that this is the first Star Wars film that feels really episodic to me. It reminds me of a Clone Wars or Rebels episode: there is some manufactured conflict with one character clearly needing to learn some lesson; hi-jinx ensue until said character learns his or her lesson. That formulaic heavy handedness is appropriate for a half hour kids show - but not for a Star Wars film.
  • Also, why didn't Holdo turn around immediately and go light speed through the ship instead of waiting until many Resistance transport ships were lost? Everything about this subplot is wrong.

  • I found Luke's final act to be awesome in just about every way. From the epic Samurai / Western showdown (audiovisually stunning) to the reveal that he is Force projecting (another moment when there were audible gasps in the audience) to his peaceful death before a binary sunset, I just loved it. Rey said the Resistance needed a legend, to which Luke responded, "What do you think I'm going to walk out with my laser sword and take on the entire First Order?" And then he does exactly that. Except he does it in a way that outsmarts his opponent rather than beating him physically. Rather than beating Kylo with a lightsaber, he beats him through a much higher command of the Force. It is transcendent and it is glorious.
  • The messages in this film may be some of my favorite in the series. Anyone can be strong with the Force. Failure is a great teacher. No one is ever really gone. This last message struck me particularly hard as I recently lost a dear family member. Given this trilogy's role in moving away from the original trilogy characters we have loved for decades, Luke's final words weren't just to Kylo; they were to us.
The Last Jedi has plenty of good and plenty of bad. After two viewings, I find that the good strongly outweighs the bad. The good is really good and the bad is mostly contained. It probably helps that it finishes on such a strong note. This film provided many surprises and explored new territory. It took some risks, not all of which paid off. But, as Yoda teaches us, "the greatest teacher, failure is."

I, for one, will rewatch Episode VIII many more times and I am looking forward to Episode IX!


Blade Runner 2049 Review

I found Blade Runner 2049 to be positively captivating. It was long and slow but very immersive and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. Villeneuve deftly walked the line between paying homage to the tone and style of the original and exploring new, interesting territory. It is brilliantly directed, very well acted, and realized spectacularly through cinematography and score.


The Good

  • The story is solid. There is a point of view out there that this movie looks pretty but has a weak plot; I don't buy it. I found the story - while not perfect - to be very compelling. It has elements of a classic hero's journey but it also has twists that subvert viewer expectations, thus rendering the mystery more . . . mysterious. I didn't see the primary twist coming at all and I really enjoyed how it wasn't a climactic twist (a la The Sixth Sense) but instead marked a huge shift in the arc of the protagonist. This way I could enjoy not just the twist itself but its implications in the third act.
  • The characters - even the minor ones - are interesting. I especially enjoyed that, although characters from the previous film are present here, this movie really isn't about them. Pre-existing characters are part of the context but this story belongs to the next generation.
  • Acting and directing are on point. This film isn't devoid of dialog but there is a lot of "white space," shots in which characters have to convey information through emoting and blocking rather than through speech. With rare exception, the entire cast acquitted itself with aplomb. I'm no fan of Ryan Gosling because it seems like all he ever does is brood on screen, but that approach worked really, really well here. And any time you can get Harrison Ford to throw himself into a role these days, it's a win.
  • This sequel asks the same philosophical questions as the first film - but it asks them differently. What does it mean to be human? What is love? What is life? Where are the boundaries between what is artificial and what is "real?" The original Blade Runner was hardly the first sci fi film to ask these questions but it did so in a way that captured the imagination, touched the heart, and incited decades of debate. 2049 asks the same questions but through different enough "lenses" as to be just as captivating and thought-provoking.
  • Viewers will be rethinking, analyzing and debating this film for years. Not only the abstract, philosophical questions but also the specifics of the plot and characters invite post-facto discussion. Some details become apparent later in the film but some weren't obvious (to me, at any rate) until hours of thinking about it and discussing afterward. For example, while watching the film, I wasn't terribly moved when K discovers that he isn't Deckard's child. Only afterward, while remembering how earnestly he questioned Deckard about Rachael (believing her to be his mother at that time), did the revelation really hit me in the gut. I imagine that this film - like its predecessor - will benefit from rewatching.

The Bad

  • There is some clunky exposition. For all the tightly woven narrative and artfully shown (just enough)-not-told plot and character points, there are a few moments when the film beats the viewer over the head with overt exposition. I don't know if this was due to low confidence in moviegoer intelligence (probably justified) or sacrifices to reduce the run-time (in which case I can't wait to see an extended director's cut) but each of these moments stick out as wholly incoherent with the rest of the film. They actually pulled me out of the film in those instances but, due to the competence of the rest of the movie, I quickly found myself sucked back in
  • The science of some key elements is questionable. I know, I know, you're supposed to suspend disbelief in sci fi but, when something goes against the basic laws of physics, it's hard for this scientist/engineer not to object. Once again, though, it's a credit to the quality of the rest of the film that it could pull me in regardless of my incredulity.

The Amazeballs

  • The cinematography and sound are simply outstanding. They aren't just pretty to look at and nice to hear; they conspire to create a truly immersive cinematic experience. There were moments in this film when I felt positively hypnotized, floating along wherever the director wanted me to go; it was sublime. Deakins (cinematography) and Zimmer (score) are the "it" people in their respective fields and this film showcased exactly why. Excepting for the few moments that I was pulled out of the film (See above.), I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in this world - and that is saying something after 163 minutes!
  • The film captured the tone and style of Blade Runner but extended them enough to offer something truly original. Blade Runner 2049 incorporates enough of the past to honor its heritage but also offers enough new to be interesting. It is more than an homage and less than a copy - more like a variation on a symphonic theme. Doing anything with a movie as beloved as Blade Runner risks alienating fans but I think 2049 hits as close to the mark as can be done. Kudos to the entire team for the care that was taken with this precious IP.

I have been increasingly impressed with Denis Villeneuve's work. Most recently I found Arrival to be a refreshingly different type of sci fi movie - much less action-centric and more cerebral than other big budget Hollywood films in the genre. Indeed, Villeneuve's style was a perfect match for Blade Runner, which was itself a slower and more pensive sci film in a time when Star Wars had turned the genre into a special effects arms race.

When a Blade Runner sequel was announced, I was skeptical. It didn't seem to me that anyone was clamoring for more Blade Runner, especially not after Ridley Scott's Final Cut left the film in such a good place. When Villeneuve was attached to the project, I dared to hope but still tempered my expectations. Now, having experienced the final product, I find myself surprised and frankly, elated. Given all of the misses in attempts to reboot or revisit old, beloved franchises, perhaps Blade Runner 2049 will serve as a reminder of just how high the ceiling is if you can get it right.


Enchanted by Ireland 1

Katie and I had a lovely trip to Ireland with her family! After a week and a half, we are positively enchanted by the Emerald Isle and will hope to return soon.

Our trip actually began in Paris for the annual Jimmy Buffett concert. Because we would only be in Paris for 24 hours, we chose to walk around and enjoy the great city rather than queue up for a prime spot at the Saturday show. This was just fine, though, as there isn't a bad seat in the house for these small concerts and we still had ample opportunity to catch up with our Parrothead friends after the show.

Sunday we took a flight to Dublin, where we were greeted at the airport by ads for Guinness - a refreshing change from the luxury watch ads that usually greet us at European airports! Katie's parents, sister, and brother-in-law picked us up at the airport (They had already been in Dublin for a couple of days.) and we were off to Galway. I hadn't realized how small Ireland is geographically but it only took two hours to drive from Dublin (East coast) to Galway (West coast).

Upon arrival in Galway we headed immediately for the Galway Oyster Festival! It was a big tent with, wait for it, oysters! And beer! Specifically Guinness! My first Guinness in Ireland was really lovely. People claim that Irish Guinness tastes better and it may well do but I would need a side-by-side blind tasting to test that claim. Taking it on faith, though, I just drank every Guinness I could get my hands on throughout the trip! I love Guinness on its own but it goes very well with seafood as well, including the Kelly(!) Oysters (from just a few km away), the mussels and clams, and the fish n' chips there at the festival.

That evening we went to The Quays, a local pub/bar/music venue/restaurant for dinner. The food (fish n' chips and beef and Guinness stew - which we ordered every chance we could on this trip) wasn't great but they let you add four oysters alongside any Guinness for a small additional fee so we liked that deal. The music was pretty nice too so it was a good start to the evening.

After dinner we attended Trad on the Prom, a show of traditional Irish music and dance. It featured unique Irish singing, instruments, and Riverdance-style dancing. It was sort of hilarious in that, every time the emcee would introduce a performer, he would remark that that performer had won X number of world championships. I'm not sure exactly how many competitors there are in the "world" championships of traditional Irish dancing but it would seem that the majority of them were there performing that night! This became a running joke of ours for the rest of the trip; with every performance we saw we wanted to know how many world championships had been won by the performers!

Our Monday began with a run along Galway's Prom[enade]. It was cool, foggy, and oh so green - exactly as I imagined Ireland would be! We followed this up with recovery nutrition at Dungeons & Donuts, a hybrid donut shop and tabletop RPG parlor. The donuts weren't amazing but the flavors were creative and the atmosphere was unique!

After a visit to Katie's Chocolate Shop (Both Barrett sisters' names were well represented by Galway food service companies!), we drove around Galway Bay to our next destination. En route we stopped for tours of Hazel Mountain Chocolate, a local artisanal chocolatier, and Dunguaire Castle, a 16th-century tower house located on a huge bog that feeds into the bay.

First impressions of Ireland were enormously positive. The people were - as they would say - lovely, the landscape was green upon green upon green, castles and ruins were ubiquitous, and the Guinness flowed like water!


Family and Hurricanes and Terminators, OH MY!

We did a great deal more after our eclipse trip last month but multiple hurricanes distracted me from blogging about it!

After the eclipse in Charleston, we spent a couple of days at the beach in Hilton Head. It was a bit hot and humid but it still always does my heart good to feel the sand between my toes.

This midweek diversion was the prelude to a weekend trip to visit my brother and his family in St. Petersburg, Florida. The primary purpose of this trip was to meet the new addition to his family but we (I) planned it to coincide with the theater release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day!

The rest of Nick's family conspired with me to keep the visit a surprise from him so, when we showed up at his door Thursday evening (with movie tickets already in hand!), he was pretty taken aback. T2 was a favorite movie of ours when we were teens and we watched it over and over again on video. It was a real treat to see it 26 (!) years later in the theater again.

While the movie experience was fun, nothing can compare to spending time with the people we love. We enjoyed meeting our new niece and spending time with our rapidly growing nephews as well. It was a relaxed weekend of family, food, and fun.

Unfortunately, during this same time, Hurricane Harvey was wreaking havoc on the Texas Gulf Coast. We stayed in close contact with our friends in Houston and were pleased that, after all was said and done, everyone was OK. Some of our friends were unscathed, some had some property damage, and some effectively lost everything - this was a real doozy! Fortunately, though, even those who experienced great loss of property survived physically and are now recovering. 

It will take years for Houston to recover from Harvey but it was amazing to see the "everyday" acts of heroism even during the first days of the disaster: neighbors helping flooded neighbors evacuate, good Samaritans rescuing stranded animals, and volunteers pouring in from all over the country to help with recovery efforts. Sometimes in times of strife we see the worst of people but, in this case, we really saw the best of humanity.

I was particularly proud of my alma mater, Rice University. It weathered the storm well and, rather than resting on that privilege, more than 2,000 students, faculty, staff, and alumni spent the following week out in Houston helping those less fortunate to recover. Losing a week of school is a major blow to a 14-week semester but the "real world" education these students received through their community engagement trumps anything they would have learned in a classroom.

From the eclipse to family trips to hurricane devastation, it has been a roller coaster of a few weeks. We are fortunate to be OK but our hearts go out to those who were less lucky.


Dear Mr. Potter

Recently I have been listening to a Harry Potter podcast that I really enjoy and highly recommend called Dear Mr. Potter.

As I've been getting into podcasts (Yes, I know I'm late!), I've been seeking out content about topics I really enjoy - which most certainly includes Harry Potter! Unfortunately the vast majority of Harry Potter podcasts are just superfans gushing, gossiping, and speculating about JK Rowling's next tweets - not really what I seek to fill my limited time! Instead I look for podcasts that provide a keen new analytical angle to content with which I'm already quite familiar.

Enter Alastair Stephens, host of the Dear Mr. Potter podcast. Formerly under the StoryWonk brand but recently renamed to Point North Media, Alastair is a professional expert on stories. He teaches classes on writing and storytelling, he offers services to review/critique manuscripts of stories-in-progress, and . . . he podcasts.

He is progressing through the Harry Potter series at the rate of one book per season, one season per year. He divides each season into ~8 episodes that progress chapter-by-chapter through the book, taking a deep dive into the characters, narratives, and general story craft of those sections. At the end of each season, he also analyzes the movie adaptation of that book.

I. love. it. It's like a book club except much more detailed and led/hosted by someone who knows more than I do about story craft - which is something that this Ravenclaw appreciates! He is in his third season (Prisoner of Azkaban) but I'm still catching up through Chamber of Secrets.

Looking through his site, he also has podcasts on the stories of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and many one-off episodes about various movies and books so I still have lots of content through which to make my way.

The podcasts aren't perfect (for me). He records them live with followers asking questions in real-time. Because I listen to them post-facto, I then have to wallow through some dead spots during which he is reading and processing questions. At first this was a turn-off but my podcast app lets me skip ahead a few seconds easily, which I find gets past most of that. And, who knows, once I catch up, perhaps I'll even be tempted to participate in real-time too.

For anyone who enjoys Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc., I would recommend giving Alastair's content a try. If you enjoy it, consider making a one-time donation or becoming a patron (periodic, recurring donation); it's important to reward the content we love so that its creators can sustain it for the benefit of all!


Total Eclipse

Yesterday we experienced a total solar eclipse and it was spectacular.

Sunday we drove down to Charleston, South Carolina, where we had reserved a room many months ago. Charleston was one of the few major US cities to be in the path of totality so it was packed full of out-of-towners coming in for the event.

Sunday night we went downtown and, at the recommendation of some dear family who could not join us, we dined at Amen Street, where we had delicious seafood - some raw, some baked, some fried! And chocolate cake, of course. :-D These family members made reservations for us weeks ago, which turned out to be necessary; our table by the door witnessed walk-ins being turned away over and over again all night.

Monday morning we [of course] sought out the best donuts in Charleston. Our research led us to Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts and we were not disappointed! We tried eight of the 13 donuts they were offering that day and all of them were at least very good; a few were even excellent. Their Solar Eclipse donut (glazed with custard then partially obscured by a "moon" of chocolate chips" was really special.

Nourished as we were, we finally set out to view the eclipse. It began ~13:15 local time, although totality wouldn't come until 14:45. For the first hour the cloud cover made it really hard to see (through eclipse viewing glasses, of course!) anything at all. With a non-trivial chance of rain all afternoon, it was entirely possible that we wouldn't be able to see the total eclipse when it happened.

Fortunately, as we neared totality, the clouds parted, and we had a great view of the eclipse. Here it is, shortly before totality, as viewed through the eclipse glasses:

When totality finally arrived, it was spectacular. Very quickly everything became very dark (and cool!) and there was a ring of fire in the sky that could be viewed with the naked eye:

The auto brightness of my phone's camera belies how dark things were. It is true what they say, that there is a huge difference between 99% and totality. I didn't notice it as much when everything was becoming dark but afterward, once the sun began peaking around the moon again, it was really impressive. At that point the light came rapidly and demonstrated the stark contrast with the total eclipse. Concentric rings of clouds lit up in rapid succession as the light of the sun returned.

We only had totality for around two minutes in Charleston but wow, what an incredible two minutes. It was otherworldly, an experience that I will never forget!

We left shortly after the eclipse and managed to avoid predicted heavy traffic. While we were on the road, the heavens opened up on us so we were really glad that the rain delayed just long enough for us to experience totality! Although we were only briefly in Charleston, it is clear that we need to return and spend some time getting to know that interesting town. We know there is more to it than just seafood and donuts!


Hiking in Switzerland

A friend of mine recently asked me for hiking recommendations in Switzerland but, for better or worse, I spent most of my time running along the lake rather than hiking up into the mountains when I lived there. Finding myself woefully unable to advise him, I sought out hiking recommendations from my Swiss friends. Here they are below and many thanks to everyone who contributed!
  • Go up the Grammont and you can see the lake (Lac Leman): 
  • Val d'Anniviers would be my recommendation! Base yourself out of Zinal and there are plenty of beautiful hikes from there: 
  • Tour des Muverans!!! Faaaabulous! Did it with school, so ideal with kids! 
  • Check out Saas Fee. Not too far a drive, beautiful village and lots of good alpine hiking trails! 
  • A great resource for hiking and climbing routes is hikr.org. You can filter by location. Routes are graded, so you can filter based on the level you're looking for.
  • Zugspitze near Garmisch (near the German-Swiss border) 
  • Interlaken and the Grindelwald area are definitely worth a try!!
  • Mont Joly and Jonction (French Alps near the Swiss border) - both around Chamonix - are incredible! Definitely my favorites nearby Geneva. And Lapaz in Les Houches has awesome views of Mont Blanc on a nice day. 
  • We are using a tour company, New Experience Holidays. They have hikes in many countries—guided and self-guided. We are taking a self-guided hike called Bernese Highlights West (Hotel to Hotel) 7 nights. Approximately 5 to 7 mile hikes per day (hopefully only half day hikes). 
And there you have it - I hope these recommendations are helpful for my friend and for any other readers who come along. As for me, well now I have new bucket list items for my next Swiss visits!