Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Gary, the Sith Eternal: A Star Wars Story

Gary’s life flashed before his eyes approximately a thousand times a day.

Such was life on Exegol.

He’d started his day as he always had, donning heavy robes that never came clean. The planet produced a maddening amount of dust; it got in everything. His robes ended up encrusted in dry filth no matter how many times he washed them. At first, he felt like dust covered his entire body.

He’d stopped itching about a decade ago.

That’s why he found it mildly alarming that he felt the urge to scratch the back of his neck.

Breakfast consisted of hard bread incapable of satisfying his hunger and old wine incapable of quenching his thirst.

He’d gotten used to that, too.

To be a Sith Eternal meant to be in a state of constant discomfort and misery.

It would lead to great rewards, he’d often heard.

His friends—well, with thousands upon thousands of Sith Eternals conjuring unthinkable things on Exegol, “friends” was a relative term—believed wholeheartedly in the Resurrection. They believed, through Sith Magic (totally not The Force but totally The Force), Consciousness Transference (totally not a brain computer but totally a brain computer), and Vessel Reconfiguration (totally not cloning but totally cloning), they could bring back a being of supreme power.

They could have picked any great Sith from history—a Darth Revan, a Darth Plagueis, a Darth Vader, a Darth Tenebrous—but instead they’d decided to bring back Darth Sidious because he had the foresight to implement a “contingency” plan after his death. What great Sith Lord didn’t have a contingency plan? The whole point of the order was to cheat death.

Sidious, the mortal also known as Palpatine, had more vanity than all the other Sith Masters combined. He deluded himself into believing he was all the Sith—and that was before his death at the hands of his own apprentice. It took months for a probe from the Emperor to find its way to Exegol to break the news of his defeat and carry word of his contingency plan.

Gary, one of the Sith Eternals who’d activated the probe’s message, walked away unimpressed. In life, Palpatine stayed in touch with the powers-that-be in the Unknown Regions. In death, he conjured a grand plan of dubious quality that felt very familiar.

Rule by oppression.

Overwhelming military might.

Planet killers.

Those were his favorite tools, and they’d all been destroyed. Two Death Stars. Two! And the Starkiller—just a bigger one!

Palpatine somehow felt that creating even more planet killers would lead him to ultimate victory. And so the Sith Eternals bought into his plan, putting their shipyards to work and training legions of Sith Troopers who would obey his every command.

Gary could’ve joined the Sith Trooper Legion, accepted a position as a fleet officer, or worked in the shipyards. He decided instead to don the robes of a Sith Eternal Adept and learn the ways of Sith Magic.

He expected a quiet life of reflection as he and his fellow Adepts dug through vast storehouses of Sith artifacts and textbooks filled with arcane Sith knowledge. He anticipated, perhaps, assembling his own Sith lightsaber.

But lightsabers required kyber crystals and planet-killing cannons required even larger kyber crystals, so Gary and his fellow Adepts could not create lightsabers. One day, one of the elders presented them with battle axes and maces; Adept Caro-Sio lost his arm in the free-for-all. Prayer and meditation followed. Then, more violence. Adept Caro-Sio lost a leg. Prayer and meditation. Another arm. More prayer. More meditation. They threw Adept Caro-Sio’s body into the abyss, for what good was a limbless Sith Eternal?

In the days that followed, Gary still heard Adept Caro-Sio’s screams when Exegol’s static-electric storms peaked. His masters told him this was an impossibility, but Gary knew the difference between the wind and a scream. Perhaps the abyss did not run as deep as he and the others thought; perhaps Adept Caro-Sio lay just feet below as he called for help or revenge. A few days later, the screaming stopped. His masters told him it had never been there in the first place.

Gary knew better.

Sith Eternals tossed aside the Rule of Two, and as a result, they had a Rule of None, aimless in the darkness.

He’d toiled with his brethren for decades now, amassing a fleet of impressive size and power. Children born into the Sith Trooper Legion now wore full armor and carried the weapons of warriors. They mined enough kyber in the Unknown Regions to power each Xyston-class Star Destroyer with an axial superlaser capable of destroying an entire planet—as long as the untested cannons didn’t misfire and incinerate their own ships. They could not test them in Exegol’s unstable atmosphere, for if they did, they risked interfering with the Resurrection.

As Gary studied and his knowledge in Sith Magic grew, he understood a few things. First of all, his chosen name was extraordinarily dull. Many of his contemporaries—again, he hesitated to call anyone a friend—had extravagant names with multiple syllables, apostrophes, hyphens, and diphthongs. He was just…Gary. The simplicity of the name kept him grounded as others aspired to loftier heights.

Secondly, he felt the pull of something else, something unexplainable. Whereas darkness and chaos enveloped Exegol, Gary felt touched by light. This was an impossibility, the Sith teachings said, as darkness consumed light. Darkness dominated. Sith dominated. Sith ruled. The Sith Eternal would envelop the universe in darkness and chaos, swallowing up all light and hope.

This was the way. Their way. His way.

Yet, as Gary sat among his fellow Sith Eternal Adepts and considered the nature of what they’d accomplished through sheer will (and the countless resources left behind on Exegol by the Sith masters who preceded them), he wondered if they were truly unstoppable. Their plan hinged on the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine, and things weren’t going so well. First of all, the skilled Sith Eternal Mages failed to guide his Force presence back to the new clone body. Mage Obra-Skai insisted they could do it. Then again, Obra-Skai had once been Gary’s roommate and "knew with conviction” that the distant Galactic Empire would reign for a thousand generations as the old Jedi had once ruled.

The Galactic Empire lasted about two decades.

As they struggled to guide Palpatine’s spirit back to his new body, the Sith Eternal Mages communed with the dead emperor and forged a contingency plan to rule in his place. Gary didn’t understand the First Order or how it was all that different from the Empire that crumbled under Palpatine’s leadership, but he understood the need for a new figurehead. Debate raged for months on the new entity’s name and genetic makeup; eventually the Sith Eternal Mages dubbed the being “Snoke” and utilized the only genetic material they could actually get to work.

And, well, “work” was a bit of a stretch. The being came out more than seven feet tall and consistently looked like someone beat him with an ugly stick infused with Sith Magic. He lumbered around on legs that barely worked and ate with rotted teeth. Sometimes his fingers fell off. A gash consistently formed on his forehead no matter how carefully the Sith Eternal Mages managed the cloning process. They eventually fitted him with a gold robe embedded with genetic stabilizers to keep him from falling apart.

Still, despite the problems with Snoke, he was an impressive achievement, a being who manipulated Sith Magic and felt a strong connection with the Force. He had a commanding presence but commanded in seclusion because his decaying body threatened to give out at a moment’s notice.

Mage Obra-Skai kept Snokes on reserve and sent them to First Order headquarters under the escort of Praetorian Guards to make sure he stayed in power. Snoke had the ability to transfer his spirit from one body to the next, a skill Obra-Skai insisted Palpatine also possessed.

Snoke felt when his body would give out and would begin the transference incantations.

Unfortunately, he could not resurrect himself once bisected by a lightsaber he never saw coming.

A stunning collapse.

Mage Obra-Skai redoubled his efforts to bring Palpatine back in the flesh. Yes, the Emperor commanded through what remained of his spirit. Yes, the Emperor dictated much from the grave—the First Order, the rise of Kylo Ren and the fall of Ben Solo, the isolation of Skywalker, preparations for the Final Order—but all would be meaningless unless the Emperor’s powerful spirit inhabited a new body.

Obra-Skai made much progress until a key part of his genetic manipulation machine imploded. It took weeks to repair. Obra-Skai turned to Gary, his former roommate, to weld the final, delicate pieces back in place.

They’d come a long way from assembling bunk beds in their college days.

Once the machine came back to life, Gary felt the mood of the entire planet lift. It came as an overwhelming tidal wave of confidence and raised hopes once Obra-Skai produced a suitable clone body for Palpatine. It had many of the same problems as Snoke’s bodies—decay and degradation—but Palpatine’s will was strong. There were problems: the Emperor’s eyes did not work, some of his fingers didn’t fully develop, and he couldn’t walk without support.

Still, for a man who died thirty years ago, he was a hydraulic-support-walking miracle of Sith Magic and ingenuity.

He was also prone to self-delusion, such as the first time he decided to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and ended up on the floor sans clothes.

Exegol had no moons.

It had a very pale one that night.

Despite the setbacks, Palpatine’s mind was as nimble and manipulative as ever. He pitted Sith Eternal Adepts against one another in combat, bringing spectacle to a people used to waiting long periods for anything to happen. He relentlessly drilled Sith Fleet Officers in training simulations and practiced a form of Battle Meditation he claimed would improve the efficacy of Sith Forces in battle (simulations showed a point-five-percent increase in Sith proficiency under Battle Meditation, a trend Gary attributed to the fact that Sith personnel were simply trying to impress the Emperor).

The Emperor frequently cursed the Skywalker line without outwardly recognizing the irony that his plan depended entirely on the loyalty of the last remaining Skywalker. From the grave, Palpatine had carefully cultivated the boy’s dark side energy, tapping into the doubt and fear buried deep within. The Emperor saw it as his way of exacting final revenge on the galaxy, the Skywalkers, and the Jedi.

But Gary, who felt a little tug of light, felt Ben Solo within it. No matter how much the boy tried to bury his true nature in blood and fire, as much as he tried to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, the blood of Anakin and Luke Skywalker surged through his veins, as did the blood of the Princess of Alderaan. He was the son of a Skywalker. No one could be as much of a Skywalker as Ben Solo, who rejected his heritage to take the name Kylo Ren.

It could not last.

Gary never voiced these concerns to anyone, for he could only remember the screams of Adept Caro-Sio and had no desire to learn if the bottomless “abyss” wasn’t nearly as bottomless as everyone thought. After all, dust tended to obscure most everything on Exegol, making it difficult to see the true depths of its various abysses.

On the rare occasions in which Palpatine asked his followers for advice, he tended to receive only affirmation of the brilliance of his plan and its design. No one pointed out that his secret fleet of Star Destroyers was essentially trapped because of the planet’s difficult-to-navigate atmosphere. He planned to make a dramatic show of raising the ships from the depths when Ben Solo arrived.

Would it not be better, Gary wondered, to prepare the fleet for battle and guide it out of the unnavigable atmosphere? Would it not be better, he mused, for the Emperor to send his planet-killing ships out into the galaxy to destroy worlds instead of threatening them and giving other systems the chance to prepare or fight back? Would it not be better, he pondered, to send an overwhelming force of Sith Eternal Adepts to find “the Scavenger” and bring her back to face the Emperor?

Then again, these ideas sprang from a mind more rational than the Emperor’s.

Palpatine loved his grand machinations. He prided himself in being six moves ahead without realizing that the current move was failing, rendering the next five moot if he didn’t call for a course correction. He never imagined Darth Vader would find his own humanity and throw him down a reactor shaft to protect his son. That ended Palpatine’s plan for ultimate conquest; goodbye, new, powerful apprentice. Goodbye, Death Star II. Goodbye, galaxy.

Gary and the other Sith Eternals waited for the return, for Emperor Palpatine to rise from his grave and lead them to greatness.

For now, though, they would have to hook him up to a machine.

The decaying body of a clone infused with Sith Magic is stubborn.

It does not walk like a normal human body.

It does not function like a normal human body.

That is because it is not a normal human body.

The Emperor could not accept his physical limitations. He no longer tried to live life as a normal being, for he knew he was no normal being. He was power incarnate, Sith Eternal, overlord of legions of loyal followers who waited decades for his return.

Curiosity sometimes overwhelmed Palpatine, who was eager to understand the new politics of the post-Galactic Civil War era. He could see the macro and micro view of everything in ways no other being could. His orders turned the old Jedi world of Ilum into the Starkiller and used it to destroy the Republic. The fanatical First Order rose out of the imperfection of the Galactic Empire at Palpatine’s posthumous behest. Snoke, no matter how broken his corporeal being was, became a figurehead of mysticism and chaos.

Palpatine delighted in these machinations.

He did not, however, delight in the use of the machines that brought him renewed life.

Obra-Skai stirred Gary from sleep one night and escorted him to the Resurrection Chamber. Palpatine, confident in the permanence of his being, unhooked many of the life-giving tubes that sustained his existence. On the way, Obra-Skai informed Gary that the Emperor believed his Force powers had progressed to a point at which he could walk freely on Exegol without the need for “accursed machines.”

For a few minutes, Obra-Skai said, it seemed to work. Palpatine walked without encumbrance in the Resurrection Chamber and shot lightning from his fingertips as a test. He drank water without having it go straight through him, which had been a problem since the merging of his Force energy with the clone body.

But as Gary followed Obra-Skai into the Resurrection Chamber, he saw only the Emperor’s crumpled form on the ground. His breathing was sporadic.

He needed his machines.

Why, Gary wondered, hadn’t Obra-Skai and the other Sith Eternal Mages attended to the Emperor?

Soon enough, he discovered the grim answer: cloaks of Sith Eternal Mages lay on the ground, their bodies gone.

A vision—a call through the Force—hit Gary with the crushing force of a vibroblade.

Palpatine fed on Sith Eternals, especially those with exceptional skill in the dark side—and Sith Eternal Mages were among the most powerful in their order.

Gary was among the most talented in the ranks of Sith Eternal Adepts.

He scratched the back of his neck, a nervous habit exorcised long ago through purification rituals and pure apathy.

“I turned to you because of your skill with machinery,” Obra-Skai said, his voice solemn and unreal. “And also because the other Sith Mages are no more.”

Gary swallowed.

His throat was sandpaper. “What do you require of me?” Gary asked, his voice a mere whisper as the foreboding crackle of static electricity filled the air.

“Our master needs his machine to live,” Obra-Skai said. “We must reconnect him.”

“Surely there are other Mages or Adepts who are more qualified for this work,” Gary said.

“Perhaps,” Obra-Skai conceded. “But none I trust so much as you.” Obra-Skai’s pale face—all Sith Eternal faces were pale—betrayed only the slightest hints of emotion—a microscopic amount of desperation. Also, perhaps, a microscopic amount of sincerity.

Gary decided he would help.

He leaned down next to the Emperor’s body. Exegol didn’t have a smell, really, which made the rot of the Emperor’s decaying flesh all that more unique. He would’ve found it offensive under other circumstances. In this moment, it had novelty.

“It’s treason, then?” Palpatine hissed, barely audible. “Lord Vader, can you hear me? So be it, Jedi. An entire legion of my best troops awaits them. We have a new enemy, Luke Skywalker. I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive. We will be watching your career with great interest. Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise? Moonglow is a perfect complement to tonight’s dinner.”

Palpatine’s mind, it appeared, was in multiple places at once.

“Leave us. Do it! Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey toward the dark side will be complete! Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi. Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the dark side. Execute Order Sixty-Six.”

With Obra-Skai’s help, Gary hefted the Emperor’s body from the ground.

“I…I can’t hold it any longer. I will create a Grand Army of the Republic to counter the increasing threats of the Separatists. Wipe them out. All of them. I’m sending my apprentice, Darth Maul, to join you. When my new apprentice, Darth Vader, arrives, he will take care of you. Soon the rebellion will be crushed, and young Skywalker will be one of us. Your hate has made you powerful. Now, fulfill your destiny and take your father's place at my side!”

Still, the Emperor kept babbling. He spoke of plans, plots, Skywalkers, betrayals. He cursed a son Gary never knew existed and decried the progeny he called only the “Scavenger.” The Emperor’s presence intrigued Gary all the more. According to his heightened state of delusion, Palpatine had living offspring. She could be quite powerful, given her bloodlines. Gary closed his eyes and reached out.

A ray of light.

The Emperor grasped his arm. “She must return! She must come here! But first, I need the last Skywalker. I must have him here. Son of darkness. Heir to Lord Vader!” Gary and Obra-Skai pleaded with the Emperor to calm down. His fingers, never fully formed, pulsed with weak Force lightning. “He draws closer from Mustafar! Act quickly!” Palpatine shrieked. His body spasmed.

Obra-Skai’s grim look spoke volumes. If they didn’t hurry, they would lose the Emperor at a critical juncture. Kylo Ren approached, and with him, the hope Sith Eternals clung to for generation upon blighted generation. Everything they’d worked for would be for naught—the new fleet, the Sith Troopers, the Sith Eternal Adepts and Mages. He thought, oddly enough, of Adept Caro-Sio. Gary remembered him fondly.

Had he been a friend?

He had no friends on Exegol, not even Obra-Skai.

Gary and Obra-Skai lifted the Emperor into position on the machine. By this point, the delusions had subsided and Palpatine stayed quiet. He withdrew into himself and tapped into a vast storehouse of Sith Magic to keep his soul bound to his failing clone body. They could try Transference again and guide the Emperor’s spirit to a new clone body—they kept plenty of extras stored next to the spare Snokes—but that would derail the timeline. Ren would arrive soon to take the Emperor’s bait and serve as his puppet.

Doubts again crept into Gary’s mind.

Skywalkers tended to betray Palpatine.

Would this boy be any different?

The Emperor seemed to think so.

Then again, the Emperor also seemed to think world-killing weapons were unstoppable.

Gary willed the thoughts away and set about reconnecting the tubes that would keep the Emperor’s failing body alive. They provided nourishment, blood, and medications. A catheter meant the Emperor never had to worry about getting up in the middle of the night (and ensured that Exegol remained moonless). The tubes regulated blood pressure, aided his breathing, and kept his heart pumping. Connections to his decaying brain stem—smart nanomachines guided the tubes to the delicate location—allowed the Emperor to will the machine to move wherever he chose.

Palpatine’s pale eyes shot open. “Young fool. Only now, at the end, do you understand!”

“Please remain still, my master,” Obra-Skai said.

The Emperor laughed, a cackling, self-satisfied laugh that reached the planet’s core and beyond. “I AM the Senate! Unlimited power!”

Gary finished his connections and double-checked his work. Obra-Skai did the same.

“Prepare to reactivate the device,” Obra-Skai said. “I will stay near our master.” Gary hesitated for a moment. “Go. Now!”

Obra-Skai’s command spurred Gary to action. He found the control panel, ensured power was flowing steadily to the machine, and triple-checked the toggle switches. When he was certain he’d entered the correct settings, he threw the switch. Bright blue lightning surged from the top of the device into the Emperor’s body.

Palpatine’s scream also reached the planet’s core and beyond.

Puffs of smoke surrounded the Emperor’s body. He spasmed momentarily and then looked at his malformed hands. “Good. Good! Mage Obra-Skai, I thank you for your service.” Palpatine reached out; a tidal wave of pale white energy poured forth from Obra-Skai’s body into the Emperor’s. The Sith Mage’s cloak fell to the ground.

Gary never had the chance to say goodbye to his former roommate.

Palpatine willed the machine to turn him toward Gary. “Sith Eternal Adept Gary, I understand I have you to thank for my resurrection.”

Gary’s throat was drier than normal. He scratched the back of his neck. “Doing only as you bid, my master.”

Palpatine closed his eyes. “I feel something from you… something I can’t quite grasp.” He paused for a beat. “The Force is strong in you, Gary, the dark side especially. Are you a true Sith?”

“I have studied the ways of the Sith, my emperor.”

“And what do you think of my plan?”

Gary bowed his head. “Flawless, my liege.” If the Emperor looked for a lie—if he suspected one of his true believers would mislead him—he would’ve latched onto the doubts in Gary’s mind.

But supreme overconfidence was Palpatine’s strength. “Excellent. Put the fleet commanders on standby.”

Gary kneeled. “Yes, my master.”

“And Gary, tell them to take no action to impede Kylo Ren.”

Gary nodded and found the nearest communications panel. The Sith Troopers and fleet commanders had waited years for their chance. Now, Palpatine would put them under the command of a Skywalker. He sent the orders, faded into the background, and waited. Observers relayed word that Kylo Ren had landed—and he appeared angry.

A perfect tourist for Exegol.

“At last. Snoke has trained you well,” Palpatine said.

“I killed Snoke. I’ll kill you,” the petulant Skywalker offspring replied.

“My boy, I made Snoke,” the Emperor taunted.

Altogether, not exactly accurate, Gary opined. While Snoke had been Palpatine’s idea, his actual creation came at the hands of Sith Eternal Mages. But who really wanted to take credit for the creation of a being with so many problems? Who wanted people to think they’d created a being so powerful that he didn’t see that his own apprentice planned to kill him?

That was kind of Palpatine’s thing, Gary thought.

“I have been every voice you have ever heard inside your head.” Palpatine’s voice went from his own to Snoke’s to Darth Vader’s.

Gary found that pretty damn impressive.

“The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural,” Palpatine said.

Gary had heard the Emperor say that before. Given their current location and predicament, he couldn’t argue. He milled about with the other Sith Eternal Adepts. All were assured that Kylo Ren brought darkness to Exegol.

Gary believed he brought light.

Would the Emperor see it?

Given past history, Gary didn’t think so. It meant he and the other Sith Eternals would suffer in the end.

Then again, such was life on Exegol.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Review | Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

It's here!

Episode IX of the Star Wars saga arrived last weekend in the form of The Rise of Skywalker, the J.J. Abrams-directed "final" installment in the (recently made up) "Skywalker Saga."

First off, I had a blast.

I understand some fans have a lot of complaints. That's fine. This movie stuff is subjective. These days, people think we have to have a "hive mind" on big-ticket genre stuff, and it's pretty ridiculous.

Love The Last Jedi? You're not a real Star Wars fan.

Hate The Last Jedi? You're not a real Star Wars fan.

That's kind of the world we live in these days, this hyper-polarized "us vs. them" mentality that makes it impossible to discuss a movie on its merits. It's either "The Best Thing Ever" or "The Worst Thing Ever" with no room for criticism or nuance.

The unfortunate thing about this movie is that you can't really discuss it without discussing The Last Jedi. In a normal world, this wouldn't be an issue because, naturally, you'd look at the second movie in a trilogy and see how it informs the third movie in the same trilogy.

The problem is The Last Jedi and how people feel about it.

I'll just say this: The Rise of Skywalker felt like a Star Wars movie to me in ways The Last Jedi didn't at times. How you will feel about the new movie will largely depend on how you felt about The Last Jedi. If you hated it but liked The Force Awakens, you'll probably like this one. If you felt The Last Jedi challenged the Star Wars status quo and set a bold new direction for the franchise, you probably won't like it that much.

In general, though, I'm very positive on The Rise of Skywalker. Let's dive a little deeper below...

First off all, the biggest buy-in for this movie is that Emperor Palpatine is back. It's asking a lot from the audience, given that this wasn't really set up in any meaningful way in the movies that came before. There is a lot of canon/expanded universe stuff about the Emperor's plans for the Empire after his death--he definitely had something cooking--but this is the primary thing fans have to accept and just kind of "go with" at the beginning.

(One of these days, I'll get into a discussion about Disney's befuddling approach to creating this sequel trilogy without giving it a unified vision, but that'll have to wait.)

If you can accept that Palpatine--or at least his spirit--survived at the end of Return of the Jedi, most things in this movie will work. If you can't, then it probably won't.

While it's never explicitly stated in the sequel trilogy that Palpatine's alive, it does make sense. I don't think a powerful being like Snoke could exist in the universe without Palpatine knowing about it. Palpatine says he created Snoke--cloned him--and that would work a lot better if Snoke had been portrayed differently in The Last Jedi. Palpatine's plan revolved around resurrection through his granddaughter, but I got the feeling Snoke planned to destroy Rey if he couldn't turn her, so that contradicts the Emperor's plot. In fact, Snoke was going to have Kylo kill her until Kylo, um, sort of swerved from that. I can't really buy the Emperor "foreseeing" all of that, but, you know, okay.

In The Last Jedi, "master of subversion" Rian Johnson failed to pick up a lot of threads from The Force Awakens or took them in a much different direction (some in ways that infuriated fans). In turn, Abrams strays quite a bit from the things Johnson set up to close out the trilogy, which really feels like two movies that are similar in tone (The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker) with a middle child that kind of does its own thing (The Last Jedi). To me, you have to think of The Rise of Skywalker as a direct sequel to The Force Awakens that sort of acknowledges that some things from The Last Jedi happened.

It's not a smooth transition in tone at all. I have no problems admitting that.

Not having an overall plan for this trilogy showed. You couldn't avoid it. Tonally, Episodes VII, VIII, and IX are all over the place, with The Last Jedi really feeling out of place since Johnson has such a distinctive creative voice. TLJ is meandering and takes its time with characterization while Abrams wants, in George Lucas "faster, more intense!" fashion, to move things along, boom, boom, boom. There are quiet moments in Abrams' films, yes, but overall, things are propulsive. You can't say the same about Johnson's approach in The Last Jedi.

So, okay, you get the point, right? This trilogy has to have a messy ending because of the messy way its individual parts were assembled and built upon one another.

That said, I'm a big fan of The Rise of Skywalker! As I wrote earlier, it felt like Star Wars to me in ways the last movie didn't. The main characters spent a lot of time together, something we didn't get a ton of in the previous two movies. There are some incredible callbacks. The Kylo Ren/Ben Solo stuff is phenomenal (and Adam Driver is incredible). Daisy Ridley shines as Rey. The dialogue is fun and quippy, classic characters get incredible moments, and we learn Leia went through full Jedi training.

Let's dig into a few different topics...

Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. If anyone comes out of this sequel trilogy in flawless fashion, it's Adam Driver's character. He's incredible. He goes from villain to doubting villain to lost hero to redeemed hero in a good three-movie arc. His internal struggle between the darkness he clings to and the light we know must be within is one of the most compelling things in the trilogy. I feared a redemption arc for Kylo Ren, indeed I dreaded it for many reasons, but it worked.

Rey Jakku Scavenger Jedi Trainee Palpatine Skywalker (fit that on a business card). Since The Force Awakens, we understood there was something special about Rey. She was immensely gifted in the Force, much like Anakin and Luke. Many fans thought she had links to a classic character, such as the Skywalkers, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Palpatine (yep, some people thought it a long time ago). She gets her answer in The Last Jedi--she's no one, her parents are nothing (although Kylo's admission, "Not to me," is very stirring). The Rise of Skywalker goes a different direction here, fudging the "no one" stuff by saying her parents chose to be no one because she was Palpatine's granddaughter and they wanted to protect her from him. I will say that in The Last Jedi, Luke notes that Rey went "straight to the dark" when training her--something you could view as evidence of her bloodline.

Giving Rey lineage is controversial for some fans who liked Rian Johnson's approach. However, I feel like The Force Awakens wasn't going in that direction at all. Abrams reclaimed this for himself instead of going with what Johnson established. The message, though, is essentially the same: no matter who Rey is, she gets to choose her path, either as no one or as the granddaughter of the most powerful Sith who ever lived.

I find it kind of weird, though, that Leia knew this and never told her. Given the Skywalker family history, that seems kind of hypocritical to hold that back, no matter the "certain point of view." On the other hand, I can also see that Leia felt it was important for Rey to choose her own path without having to worry about the baggage that goes along with being a Palpatine.

I'm not mixed on the lineage--if you're going to make Palpatine the big bad again, it makes a lot of sense--but it did feel a hint clumsy in execution.

Emperor Palpatine. How is Palpatine back? I'll go with "ancient Sith magic," "cloning," and "because." Don't overthink this because the movie sure as heck doesn't. Again, you have to "just go with it" and accept that, in a world with the powerful, mystical "Force," things like this can happen. I couldn't help but think of the old Dark Empire comic in which the Emperor had the ability to project his consciousness into a series of clone bodies. The Sith were obsessed with learning the secret of immortality, and based on the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis, I think Palpatine mastered this (until he...um...exploded at the end?).

Oh, there were also Sith cultists or acolytes or something.

Listen, it was a pleasure having Ian McDiarmid back. I don't think that was the Emperor's original body but rather a cloned vessel that was malformed and deformed by dark side corruption. The Emperor was crazy powerful, too, summoning a Force Lightning Storm capable of destroying capital ships! Was he ever that powerful? In the old Expanded Universe, he could definitely pull off these types of things.

C-3PO. If you liked the droid pairing of C-3PO and R2-D2, you didn't get to see them spend much time together. Threepio tells Artoo he's been his best friend, and it's a poignant moment, especially after you find out Threepio has to get his memory wiped. I thought Threepio was the best he's been since Return of the Jedi. I'm also glad Artoo was able to restore his primary memory, although "mind-wiped" Threepio was pretty funny. When they fell into the sand cavern and Poe asks everyone if they're okay and Threepio tells him he's fine even though Poe didn't mention him by name, I laughed.

Is this Star Wars or National Treasure? The first part of the movie involves a series of fetch quests for an important item (the Sith Wayfinder that leads to Palpatine's new digs on Exogol). There's a dagger that plays an important role, too, and our heroes have to go from one place to another to decode ruins and find the next clue. I felt like, if this trilogy had been planned out, this idea could have played a small but important role in the previous movies.

That Han Solo scene. My favorite 20-minute span of the movie involves the lightsaber fight between Rey and Kylo Ren, Leia's death, Ben Solo's redemption, and Rey's return to Ahch-To to visit with the Force ghost of Luke Skywalker.

I couldn't believe Harrison Ford came back for a final go-round as Han Solo. I imagine him, in his grizzled voice, telling Disney to keep backing up money trucks until the pile of cash was large enough to suit him.

I loved, loved, loved this scene. Adam Driver sells it so hard here. The conflict. The regret. The pain. It was a perfect mirror to The Force Awakens, only this time, Ben Solo makes the right decision. He could've turned away from the Dark Side earlier and returned to his parents, but he did what he thought he had to do to serve his dark master. The fact that he got to make amends, even if it was just to a memory of his father, was deeply touching. I cried in the theater; Anne gave me a napkin to dry my eyes.

If this scene hadn't worked, Ben's redemption wouldn't have worked. But to have his mother gather her remaining Force energy to reach him and then have him talk to his father was very impactful.

That Luke Skywalker scene. Rey's return to Ahch-To was expected, but I thought she'd go there specifically to consult Luke. Instead, after learning her true heritage, she goes there to live out the rest of her life without having any impact on the galaxy. She even throws away her lightsaber, which Force Ghost Luke catches (giving a not-that-subtle dig about how a Jedi should take better care of their weapon). I was glad to see Luke come back as a Force ghost, and I was glad Rey got to see him again. This was an evolution of his arc in The Last Jedi, in which he learned he was wrong to give up on the Jedi and the galaxy at large. And then he raised his own X-Wing like Master Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (music cue included) so Rey could fly it. Red 5, standing by!

Jedi Master Leia. Luke trained Leia! It's been a thing since after Return of the Jedi, yet no one mentioned it. I'm fine with a retcon, especially a good one, and I feel this is a great one. It also fixes the out-of-left-field Mary Poppins scene from The Last Jedi. At the time, I thought it was just a reaction from Leia, who was strong in the Force. However, The Rise of Skywalker proves she was powerful in the Force and had been trained. Probably one of the changes TLJ diehards will support.

You broke my heart, Chewie. Chewie's breakdown upon learning about Leia's death may have been the most heartbreaking visual in the new trilogy. This really hit me--the mighty Chewbacca driven to his knees in pain and anguish. Hasn't this poor Wookiee lost enough?

Lando! Billy Dee Williams had the time of his life. I liked how he first appeared in disguise, which reminded me of Return of the Jedi. I kept wondering, though, it he'd stayed on the desert planet for years waiting for someone to pick up on Luke's search for the Sith Wayfinder. However, he does mention in a throwaway line that Leia contacted him, so I'm guessing he simply beat Rey and the others to the planet and was watching out for them. God bless you, Billy Dee.

Wedge! The most exciting two-second cameo of my life happened when Wedge Freaking Antilles showed up in the movie. He'd appeared in some of the canon Star Wars novels, but Denis Lawson turned down the chance to reprise the role in The Force Awakens. I'm glad he came back...even if I wanted MORE WEDGE ANTILLES. It gave me the same feeling I had when Gold Leader and Red Leader showed up in Rogue One.

Feel the Force, Finn. Finn's Force-sensitive, right? I feel like this seed was planted in The Force Awakens and abandoned in The Last Jedi in favor of whatever the hell Canto Bight was supposed to be. Was that what he wanted to tell Rey? Why didn't we get closure on that point? Did he want to tell her he loved her? We may never know.

Poe Dameron, intergalactic spice runner and spurned ladies' man. Will someone kiss Poe already? I don't think it's a big deal that Poe used to run spice (it's a sort-of-contradiction of established canon, but it still kind of works). I do think it's a big deal that Zorii Bliss is immune to his obvious charms. Zorii was pretty cool, by the way, as was Babu Frik (freakin' adorable!).

Voices of the Past: At the beginning of the movie, Rey begs past Jedi to "be with me." No one answers. She feels she's alone. At the end of the movie, when it seems like all hope is lost, Jedi throughout the history of Star Wars deliver a poignant pep talk. We've got Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), Yoda (Frank Oz), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness), Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson)--basically your Jedi All-Star Team.

But that's not all! Some deep cuts are in there, too, along with characters who got a lot more screen time in TV shows like The Clone Wars and Rebels: Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Aayla Secura (Jennifer Hale), Luminara Unduli (Olivia d’Abo), and Adi Gallia (Angelique Perrin).

Forced Perspective. I feel like the menu of movie-used Force powers expanded significantly here. We got Lightsaber Throw (Darth Vader used a version of this in Jedi), Object Transference, Force Heal (a staple of video games and also seen in The Mandalorian), Force Lightning Storm, and Dark Side Transference. As a longtime player of Star Wars video games, I found this pretty satisfying.

The Millennium Falcon's dish is round again. The rectangular dish got knocked off at the end of The Last Jedi. The replacement is circular, which means the venerable old ship looks like it did in the original trilogy. Not a huge deal--just something I noticed.

A new lightsaber. Rey obtains a "new" lightsaber in the form of Leia's old one when Luke gives it to her on Ahch-To. This comes in handy when the redeemed Ben Solo rushes to Exogol to help Rey deal with Palpatine. I love the fact Leia got deep enough into her training that she made her own lightsaber. I also liked that Rey went back to Tatooine and buried the sabers--while showing off one she'd clearly made for herself. Rey's lightsaber featured a yellow (or yellow-orange) blade and appeared to be made from part of her quarterstaff.

Brother and Sister. Luke and Leia are Force ghosts now. Pretty cool, I thought.

Leia footage. I'd be curious what someone who didn't know Carrie Fisher was dead would think of her role in the movie. I think the effects artists did a spectacular job of bringing her back and featuring her. They just didn't have a ton to work with, and it showed a little bit because her reactions and lines were never very specific. Still, as far as reverse-engineered performances go, I think it was successful overall.

Humor. Most of the humor really landed. I think this is something Abrams is very good at--keeping the action going and letting the characters react accordingly. Threepio had some great lines, and Finn and Poe also landed some laugh-out-loud moments (Poe's flashlight comes to mind). Even Ben Solo got in on it--when he jumped from a height on Exogol and landed with an "Ow!" That guy had a tough day.

The Rise of Skywalker isn't perfect! A few nitpicks...

Knights of a Renaissance Fair. The Knights of Ren were Sith cosplayers and nothing more. They looked cool, stood around, and got their asses handed to him when Ben got a lightsaber. This is one of those things Abrams set up, Johnson ignored, and then Abrams didn't have enough time to really dig into because there was so much going on. I'm sure people would've viewed it as a repetition of the really awesome throne room scene from The Last Jedi, but it would've been great if Rey and Ben had to cut through the Knights of Ren together to defeat Palpatine.

And Now Star Destroyers are World Destroyers. Palpatine never met a world-killing superweapon he didn't like. I can buy that decades of construction in the Unknown Regions led to a large fleet of Star Destroyers; I didn't like that each one had a Starkiller Base/Death Star strapped to the underbelly. Isn't a really large fleet crewed by evil Sith personnel enough of a threat, especially given Palpatine's return? It just felt a little excessive, but then again, Palpatine's never been one for understatement.

Death Fakeouts. The movie leans into three pretty significant death fakeouts: Chewie, C-3PO, and Ben Solo. Each of them comes back (Chewie and C-3PO are just fine while Ben eventually dies after he comes back to help Rey on Exogol). I felt like these could've been handled a little more deftly. The Chewbacca one, in particular, could've been excised with little detriment to the plot.

I'm glad C-3PO's memory got restored and am uncertain why we had to make such a big deal about this when it was clear Artoo would have a thumb drive containing Threepio's programming. It undercut the drama and sacrifice.

Reylo. The kiss at the end did not ruin the movie at all. It's not the worst decision in the world. I just felt like it pandered a little bit too much to Reylo fans; it felt excessive. I think it would've been far more effective for Ben to die with their feelings unrequited--it would've been tragic that way. I don't think it was out of character--Rey and Ben certainly had feelings for each other--but a little restraint here would've really paid off.

Plan? What Plan? Rian Johnson didn't leave a lot to be wrapped up, plot-wise, in The Last Jedi. It's mostly a character movie and not plot-heavy. The middle part of a story is supposed to set things up for the home stretch; TLJ doesn't do this. That meant whoever wrapped up the sequel trilogy had to pretty much come up with a plot from scratch. This led to the "Palpatine's back" plot and the fetch quest setup at the beginning. The characters had to have a goal, and Abrams did his best to provide one.

To be clear, the idea that George Lucas had a definitive storyline in mind for the original trilogy is a myth. He made it up as he went along, and it worked spectacularly. Star Wars is pretty much an accident. The major difference--and it's a MAJOR difference--is that Lucas' creative vision oversaw Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi (and The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith). This sequel trilogy lacks that singular creative vision, which is why there is so much tonal dissonance between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi and the lack of continuing plot threads from The Last Jedi into The Rise of Skywalker.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Studicus Selects 2019

Once, long ago, I posted on the internet as Studicus, an in-joke nickname related to a skit from high school. When I first started blogging, I called my year-end entries "Studicus Selects." The tradition has continued since 2005...although I skipped 2006 for some unknown reason.

You'll find past entries here (scroll down for the 2019 picks):

Studicus Selects 2018
Studicus Selects 2017
Studicus Selects 2016
Studicus Selects 2015
Studicus Selects 2014
Studicus Selects 2013
Studicus Selects 2012
Studicus Selects 2011
Studicus Selects 2010
Studicus Selects 2009
Studicus Selects 2008
Studicus Selects 2007
Studicus Selects 2005

Biggest Family Addition, Cute Dog Category. I have resisted getting a dog for years. I grew up with two dogs, Runt and Kodie, and absolutely loved them. They were outside dogs, however. Anne and I live in a condo. The idea of sharing a living space with an animal was never something I wanted to do. But, you know what? Things change.

While I was at work on June 24, Anne emailed me a photo of a dog named Howard at the Animal Protection League in Anderson:
This is a chiweenie! 🙂 LOL! Omg... I'm in love. He's adorable. He's a mix of a chihuahua and a dachshund. He's old enough that he's housebroken and mellow. Surprisingly, Chihuahuas and dachshunds were on the list of best breeds for people who work. We should visit him. He's precious!  
This was our introduction to Howard
Anne has said several times that the photo "just spoke to her." It must have spoken to me, too, because I relented and said we should go visit him. We traveled to Anderson on June 29 to pick him up and life hasn't been the same since. 

Howard is a fantastic dog, and we're so happy to have him in our family. I could write several paragraphs about him--several--but instead I'll just post a few more pictures.

Anne, Howard, and me at the Animal Protection League in Anderson, Indiana, on June 29, 2019. This is just before we took him home.
We sometimes take Howard to doggy day care at Camp Bow Wow. He looked a little...apprehensive...about his first day...
We take Howard to Petco for grooming. They gave him a little bowtie after his first visit
Howard enjoys some sleepy time with Anne
One of my favorite photos of Howard...a very happy dog!
When it's cold outside, Howard wears this "Adidog" sweatsuit. I think it's adorable.
We dressed Howie as a taco for Halloween. He was thrilled.
A very noble dog.
Part chihuahua. Part dachshund. All hero.
Howard's a big fan of naps.
Best New Purchase, King-size Bed Category. Anne and I have had the same bed since we got married. My parents bought the queen-size bed for me as a college graduation gift in 2003. Anne and I got married in 2006--and the bed had been along with us the whole time. We finally decided to get a new one. If you've ever listened to a podcast, you'd know that Casper is the best bed out there.

But we bought a Nectar instead. It's the same concept--a memory foam mattress--but I thought Nectar was a slightly better deal. The reviews were also pretty good for it, so we decided to go with the Nectar bed. My brother-in-law Tom came over to help us set it up, and no one died, so that's good. We went with the king-size bed, and it's fantastic. Howard can sleep between Anne and me without fear of someone rolling over on him.

I have occasional back problems, and I can tell you that I look forward to go to bed every night and haven't had any back pain since the bed arrived in September.

Best Family Trip, Disney World Vacation Category. My mom has wanted to go to Disney World since, well, pretty much forever. She didn't get to go as a kid. She didn't get to go when my brother and I were young. So, she and my father took the whole family to Orlando for a magical weekend in the Magic Kingdom.

It was a fantastic trip. Absolutely unforgettable. There were so many great moments (we did a whole podcast about the trip if you want the play-by-play), but here are a few highlights:
  • Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge
  • Mad Hatter's Tea Party (spinning maniacally with my brother)
  • Splash Mountain (and the family picture)
  • Space Mountain (I got to ride twice!)
  • Building a Lightsaber (see below)
  • Star Tours (see below)
  • So much blue Powerade
  • Kali River Rapids
  • Indiana Jones Stunt Show Spectacular
Anne was STOKED for Prince Charming's Carousel
It's only a life-size AT-AT walker...
This is from the last day of our vacation in Hollywood Studios
The Adams Family...many of them in Cincinnati Reds gear...poses at Chef Mickey's
Some family members are having fun. Some are terrified. Some are ambivalent. And then there's the youngest member of the family, Ryleigh, holding her hands in the air!
The family poses for a photo after our dinner with Cinderella's family
Best Ride, Disney World Vacation Category. Look, Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run was a great ride, but Star Tours was absolutely fantastic. I rode it three times and would've ridden it three more if time allowed. I just really liked this one. The sense of speed, the way the ride threw you back into your seat and made you feel like you were really zooming around the Star Wars universe was awesome.

Best Memento, Disney World Vacation Category. Look, this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Do I regret spending $200 on a lightsaber? Absolutely not. My brother, nephew, and I traveled to Savi's Workshop in Galaxy's Edge so we could put together our own lightsabers. I chose the "Peace and Justice" model with a green kyber crystal (my nephew, a true Sith, chose "Power and Control" with a red kyber crystal). The experience was awesome! Because the lightsabers are unwieldy, we shipped them back home.

My lightsaber arrived safely in Indianapolis after its journey from Orlando.
Most Ambitious Podcast Production, The Matt Adams Podcast Category. Anne and I do a podcast that, um, kind of varies in frequency (we're going to be better about this). We usually delve into pop culture--a lot of Star Wars and Marvel stuff--but we tried some original fan fiction with a production called Six Stones to Peggy. It tells the story of Captain America's quest to return the various Infinity Stones to their rightful places and is our love letter to the MCU. You can read it or listen to it.

Best Video Game, Star Wars Category. I'm not the biggest video game player in the world. I play sporadically (with the bulk of that around Thanksgiving and Christmas). When I heard about Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order and saw the trailer, I preordered it (I never preorder games).

And, man, it was really good! I liked the exploration element (reminded me of Tomb Raider) and LOVED the little droid BD-1. I liked him so much, in fact, that I bought a BD-1 sweatshirt. The combat took some getting used to, and I dropped the difficulty level here and there to get past a particularly tough boss, but I really enjoyed the game. The story was fantastic and there were some great surprises. Check it out!

Image via Star Wars.com
Best Rewatch Decision, Netflix Category. For some reason, Anne and I decided to rewatch Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix. We're on season five so far and will likely wrap up the whole series in the next month or so. That is such a great show and I'm glad we've decided to give it another watch.
Don't be so exasperated, Jean-Luc! We love the show!
Most Surprisingly Great TV Series, HBO Category. I like Zack Snyder's Watchmen and think it is a good film adaptation of a very complicated graphic novel. I also understand why he changed the ending. That said, HBO's continuation of the Watchmen graphic novel is incredible. I've been absolutely floored with how it adheres to and re-contextualizes the source material, all while grappling with some extremely weighty subject matter.

Most Intimidating Nacho, Helmet Nacho Category. I've always wanted to try the helmet nachos at Great American Ball Park--and I got my chance during a game on May 31. Even with help from my niece and nephew, we couldn't finish the whole thing. I went all cheese here, no meat or anything. It was Star Wars night, though, so we got to watch fireworks set to John Williams' epic score after the game. Plus, the Reds won.

We fought the good fight, but that is A LOT OF NACHOS
Favorite New Streaming Service, Disney+ Category. Listen, Disney owns everything you love. They have now put everything you love into a streaming service and given you even more things to love with shows like The Mandalorian and its true star, Baby Yoda. For $6.99 a month or $70 a year, it's hard to beat! Anne and I watch The Mandalorian every week and have started our own Wonderful World of Disney nights to watch old movies.

Geez, he's cute
Best Grocery Pickup Discovery, Kroger Category. It's not all that new or novel, but we've become big fans of Kroger's Clicklist service. You submit your order online, schedule a time, and then pull into special spots at Kroger. An employee will then bring your groceries to you and load them into your trunk. As an aside, did you know people in the U.K. and Australia call the trunk of a car the "boot?" I learned it from Mr. Sunday Movies

Most Used Gif in a Text, Anne Category. Anne is all about a particular gif of a dancing banana (made famous by "Peanut Butter Jelly Time"). She uses it a lot. I have seven documented cases of this being used since Nov. 21, so while it's a relatively recent phenomenon, it's here to stay. It signals that Anne is happy.

Best Streaming Cable TV Replacement, Sling Sucks Now Category. A dispute between Fox regional sports channels and Sling forced my hand this year. I canceled Sling after learning they would no longer carry Fox Sports Indiana or Fox Sports Ohio (I have to watch the Reds and Pacers!). I signed up for YouTube TV and haven't looked back since. Yes, the service is more expensive than Sling, but you don't get nickel and dimed for add-ons like Cloud DVR. The interface is pretty intuitive and I probably won't go back to Sling, even if the sports stations came back.

Writing Year in Review. This wasn't the most productive writing year I've ever had. I did finish some projects, including a G.I. Joe homage/ripoff called STARS vs. CRIMSON. I've finished a novel set in that universe along with four short stories. It's kind of fun to embrace my inner child!

This is a mock-up cover for my STARS vs. CRIMSON novel, The Miniaturizer
Movie Year in Review: As usual, Anne and I went to see plenty of movies in 2019. Here are some capsule reviews (you may encounter some SPOILERS):

Mary Poppins Returns. A 2018 release that we saw in early 2019, all I remember is that some of the songs were good and Emily Blunt was a fine substitute for Julie Andrews. And Dick Van Dyke showed up.

They Shall Not Grow Old. Peter Jackson of the Lord of the Rings movies put together this jaw-dropping documentary on World War I. He colorized some of that old, jerky newsreel footage and made The Great War come to life through the stories of the men who fought. It's amazing (we did a podcast on it).

Alita: Battle Angel: This movie based on a manga was surprisingly not awful (we did a podcast on this one). We actually had some fun! Best movie ever? Of course not...but it's a good special effects-heavy movie IF you can get past Alita's gigantic eyes. IF. 

Captain Marvel: The first of three MCU movies for 2019, this movie rewrote some MCU history and introduced a super-powerful character into the movies. We dug the 1990s vibe, the de-aging effects, the twist with the Skrulls, the humor, and mostly everything else. We still think Nick Fury should've lost his eye in a more satisfying way. Oh, we also did a podcast on this one.

Avengers: Endgame. This movie was incredible. I wrote about it in length. I laughed. I cried. I cried again. Then I laughed some more. Then I cried. But really, it was terrific. You'll be shocked that we did a podcast on this, too! Oh, and I wrote a guide to the MCU for my poor brother.

Shazam! After the crushing disappointment of Batman v. Superman, DC gave us some solid efforts in Wonder Woman and Aquaman. They also gave us Shazam!, a satisfying, fun superhero romp with heart. We enjoyed it immensely, for the most part, although a few things nagged at us. It's funny, though, and fun, and those are the most important things. Yep, podcast plug.

Aladdin. So, Disney likes to turn its animated classics into live-action spectacles that are basically the same movie. This is Aladdin, only with people. Naomi Scott is pretty much the real draw here, but Will Smith does bring some fun zaniness to the role of Genie. Really, it's not bad at all--just don't expect much variation from the original. Oh, and it made a billion dollars at the box office. 

Spider-Man: Far from Home. We really enjoyed this one, which is kind of the "coda" to Avengers: Endgame and that era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland is an international treasure. He's surrounded by a great cast, including some quality Nick Fury-ness (well, um, kind of...) and I loved, loved, loved the take on Mysterio. If I had only one complaint, it's that it would've been really cool if the Mysterio of the movie really was a hero--now that would have been a twist. And, yes, we did a podcast.

Rocketman. Anne liked this one a lot more than I did because she likes Elton John a lot more than I do. I'm still impressed that Taron Egerton did his own singing.

Toy Story 4. It was...good? I'm sure it was! Listen, the previous three Toy Story movies are among my favorites, but I thought Disney Pixar ended things well with Toy Story 3. It's sad that I barely remember this movie even though I remember enjoying it at the time. Probably need to see it again.

The Lion King. Pretty much The Lion King, with...um...real-ish animals? Hey, James Earl Jones voiced Mufasa, so I'm in. Like Aladdin, they didn't stray much from the source material. I liked a lot of the voice cast! What they did to "Be Prepared" was a travesty. And while I like Chiwetal Ejiofor, if you're going to bring back James Earl Jones, why not bring back Jeremy Irons? And, yes, podcast.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. I'm not the biggest Tarantino fan in the world, but I like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, so I thought it was worth a shot. This is kind of a slow burn movie featuring characters with great chemistry that takes a sharp left turn at the end. There is a flamethrower. Our full review, in podcast form.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. I remember Idris Elba was super-strong and there were lots of explosions and one-liners. The Rock and Statham are always watchable. I felt like the movie went maybe 20 minutes too long? Oh, Ryan Reynolds was entertaining. Listen, it's a Fast & Furious movie, okay?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers? It totally works. While not quite as great as last year's Won't You Be My Neighbor? documentary, this is still a heartfelt, feel-good movie. The story isn't so much about Fred Rogers--it's about the conflicted journalist he meets--but there's something reassuring about a movie that puts kindness front and center.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: Find the review here.