star-wars-thrawn-alliances-review

A certain point of view

I just finished reading Thrawn: Alliances, and it has me thinking a lot about one of my favorite Star Wars characters.

(Spoilers for most Thrawn books follow.)

For some background, Thrawn (birthname Mitth’raw’nuruodo) was first exiled by his native race the Chiss before encountering and eventually outsmarting Imperial forces out in the fringes of the galaxy. His tactics so impress the Galactic Empire that he is brought into the Imperial Navy’s fold and quickly moves up its ranks. His successes find their way back to Emperor Palpatine himself, where Thrawn is given his own ship, the Chimaera and a spiffy white Imperial Navy uniform and bestowed the rank of Grand Admiral.

In Alliances, Zahn looks at the character’s present and past, shifting between Thrawn’s mission with Darth Vader to investigate a planetary disturbance and his service under the Chiss Ascendancy — where he offers to help Republic commander Anakin Skywalker as he searches for Padme. There’s a fascinating dynamic between Thrawn and Anakin’s former and current selves — Vader uses the third person to reflect on any memories of “The Jedi” — and real tension rooted in Thrawn’s deductive skills: Anakin hopes to conceal his marriage to Padme while Vader is uncertain if Thrawn knows what really became of Skywalker after the Clone Wars.

His big brain is a huge part of what makes Thrawn such a great character. A kind of Space Sherlock Holmes, Thrawn uses his supreme talent for deduction to suss out secrets and vanquish enemies. In both Thrawn and Thrawn: Alliances, his reasoning is laid out for the reader via short, italicized sections, where Zahn shows off Thrawn’s observational talents and knack for strategy. Combined with the reach of the Empire’s Seventh Fleet and the Grand Admiral’s patented understanding of civilizations through their art, Thrawn is virtually unstoppable.

Thrawn’s importance to Star Wars goes back almost three decades. When Timothy Zahn originally introduced the character in 1991’s universe-changing novel Heir to the Empire, he made the character too unstoppable. Thrawn’s eventual fate in that series’ conclusion, 1993’s The Last Command, comes by way of a literal back-stabbing from his own assassin. Having essentially given birth to the franchise’s “Expanded Universe,” where additional stories could be told in a galaxy far, far away, Zahn would go on to explore more of Thrawn’s past in books like Outbound Flight and Survivor’s Quest and even tease the character’s return in the underrated “Hand of Thrawn” duology.

When Disney acquired Star Wars in 2014, the Thrawn novels were no longer part of the official storyline, relegated to “Legends” material with the bulk of the Expanded Universe. In the years since, the LucasFilm Story Group has remained committed to keeping the many threads of Star Wars consistent, even if only a handful of the new “canon” novels have been worth more than the paper they’re printed on.

It’s telling then that when Timothy Zahn announced his return to writing Star Wars books, he brought Grand Admiral Thrawn with him. Thrawn transcended a potential legacy as a third-rate character, becoming one of the franchise’s more popular characters. Look no further than the animated series Rebels bringing him to life as Season 3’s big baddie.

One big downside to the new Star Wars canon is that so much material feels untouchable. You can’t cover anything after The Last Jedi because that might contradict Episode IX. Tread lightly with any prequel material, because there’s that new season of Clone Wars on the horizon. Everything feels buttoned down and wrapped in plastic, and that’s really limiting to creators. As much as I love his older books, Zahn’s new Thrawn novels put small, tangible stakes front-and-center. We already know the fate of Darth Vader, so Zahn makes Alliances a battle of wits against the backdrop of a mysterious new alien race.

These novels also excel at getting in a character’s headspace. Thrawn doesn’t see enemies, he sees challenges to be conquered and puzzles to be solved. In his mind, understanding and victory can be the same thing. Throughout Alliances, Vader questions Thrawn’s allegiance to the Empire, with Thrawn insisting that he can be loyal to both Emperor Palpatine and his own imperiled home world. The galaxy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. (This philosophy looks like it will play a major role in a recently-announced third book.)

Thrawn is a far cry from the cookie-cutter villains of the prequels — Zahn takes a not-so-subtle dig at the flatness of a character like General Grievous in this interview with The Verge — and even Vader’s own brutal version of law and order. He’s also an outsider, holding high rank in an organization that has historically looked down on and even outright persecuted alien races. When a Stormtrooper can’t aim a blaster to save his life, Thrawn exists as the meritocratic counterpoint to Imperial incompetence.

In the Reddit community “r/EmpireDidNothingWrong,” users reimagine Star Wars from a strictly Imperial perspective. Luke Skywalker was a radicalized terrorist. Stormtroopers were just union workers with steady employment. Mace Windu orchestrated a coup d’etat against a democratically-elected leader. It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, but Grand Admiral Thrawn gives us a first-hand perspective to what this worldview might actually look like. These new Thrawn novels are about philosophy and strategy as much as they are about intergalactic civil war. While it’s strange to think of any space Nazi as operating under a moral compass, Timothy Zahn undoubtedly makes his alien less a goon and more, well, human.

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fighting with my family wwe paige review

Fighting with ‘Fighting With My Family’

It’s realllllly hard to make a professional wrestling movie dramatic, because after a certain point you have to acknowledge that its outcomes are staged. Without the former, you’re bland; the latter, you’re talking down. (2000’s Ready to Rumble is a great example of how to mess up on both fronts.) Long have the movies grappled with how to do justice to this most unique form of entertainment, and it’s telling that the best ones (Wrestling with ShadowsBeyond the Mat, etc.) are documentaries that make it very clear this is all a “work.”

Fighting With My Family isn’t a documentary, but it’s rooted in reality, following the story of wrestler Paige (real name Saraya-Jade Bevis, played in the film by Outlaw King‘s Florence Pugh). Hailing from a “wrestling family” — Paige’s mother and father run their own independent promotion in the UK, and her brother Zak has his own dreams of making it big — Paige dreams to make it to WWE. In the film, directed by Stephen Merchant, WWE comes across as the tough-lovin’ big leagues to her family’s single-A ball.

Yet for a story that Merchant and, let’s be clear here, all of WWE PR is pushing as family-oriented, the film works best when Paige is alone, jetting off for America to train in WWE’s developmental system. (There’s probably a metaphor in there about a company that fails to understand its audience.) More importantly, let’s not undersell the fact that this follows a young woman as she works her way up in a field dominated by men and poisoned by decades of misogyny and stereotypes and actual, real violence. And it’s no small thing that the script does a serviceable job of tapping into what a career in this profession says about and does to a person, the personal drama and backstage dealings and the heartbreak that come with working in an oftentimes problematic industry. It’s quite charming.

…and then there’s the ending, which ditches most of that. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that the climax — a match that pits Paige against incumbent champion AJ Lee — plays like an unscripted event. No talk of spots. No choreography. No Vince McMahon-edited lines. There’s a strong chance that anyone who buys a ticket to see Fighting With My Family was watching Paige make her debut on Monday Night Raw 5 years ago, so the decision to play this as a “surprise” rather than use it to underscore Paige’s bonafides is a baffling contradiction.

It’s also on-brand. WWE has a long, glorious history of misfires. After all, this is a company that hands out spirit awards in the name of a homophobe. That dedicates tournaments to serial abusers. That dusts off leathery bigots for a ratings bump. That rails against bullying while stumping for the Saudi regime. It’s almost too perfect that their latest branding opportunity trips over its own rags-to-riches fantasy.

There’s definitely a metaphor in there about a company that fails to understand its audience.

Listening to this year’s Best Original Score nominees

With the 91st Academy Awards airing this Sunday, I’m taking a look  (and several listens) at this year’s nominees for Best Original Score.

Isle of Dogs — Alexandre Desplat

I’m on record in saying this would have succeeded far more as a shaggy dog story — pun intended — but Desplat brings his A-Game. Isle of Dogs has a frenzied, hollow sound, and what’s most surprising with the frequent Wes Anderson collaborator is that he shies away from obvious choices. Apart from a guttural “Shinto Shrine” theme, Desplat sticks to brass and low woodwinds, textures much more suggestive of noir and even swing jazz; I’d love to know if “Midnight Sleighride’s” inclusion came before or after the songwriting.

Consider everything this movie fumbles: An American ex-pat taking center stage in a Japan-set story. Refusing to subtitle native speakers. Having anthropomorphic dogs speak English. If not an outright revision, Desplat’s oblique approach gives us an alternative vantage point to what is otherwise an unfortunate chapter in twee cinema.

Mary Poppins Returns — Marc Shaiman

From Letterboxd:

So many of these Disney live-action movies assume the glitz and glam are enough to get you to forget you’re just watching old material — which is why you came anyway. This has some great numbers, but what’s refreshing here is the honesty, an open-hearted indulgence in nostalgia that culminates in literally turning back the clock. It’s ridiculous and glorious in equal measure, which makes the bank loan stuff all the more baffling.

Anyone involved in these monstrosities is forced into choosing the lesser of two evils: 1) more rarely, doing something new and ambitious (see: James Newton Howard) or 2) copying what came before them. Marc Shaiman’s scoring for a sequel, but he chooses the Maleficent method. To the cynic, it’s refreshing to see him talk openly of producers wanting to establish “[their] own [music]” until you actually stop and listen. “Nowhere to Go” and “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” are delightful numbers, propelled by a very on-brand Victorian jaunt. And while a cross-London race to Big Ben isn’t exactly most people’s idea of a rip-roaring action, those interstitial pieces are feature as much weight and darkness as a Mary Poppins movie has any right to.

BlackkKlansman — Terence Blanchard

On paper, BlackkKlansman is a firecracker, but there’s something about Spike Lee’s direction that doesn’t completely click. It’s much too broad with its historical source material, and the script gets far too cute in choosing when to acknowledge the obvious challenges in a black man (John David Washington) and a Jewish man (Adam Driver) posing as the same person to one David Duke (Topher Grace). Conversely, a sobering epilogue based around the 2017 attack in Charlottesville accomplishes so much more in a fraction of the time.

I don’t want ding to Blanchard on account of the movie he’s scoring to, but film music is co-dependent, and it’s hard to dissociate Lee’s choices with mustache-twirling for BlackkKlansman‘s racist goons or the one-mystery of its Black Panther theme. Blanchard’s insistence on electric guitar cheapens the production. It’s a decision that’s doubly disappointing because he doesn’t give a convincing reason for its prominence beyond the nostalgic irony. It’s disappointing, given that the motive he’s gifted for Washington’s Ron Stallworth is the real deal. It’s sexy, catchy, and above all, unexpected. Its twisting chromatic pattern is more reminiscent of Eastern modes than the blaxploitation Blanchard and Lee try to riff on. If only there were more surprises.

If Beale Street Could Talk — Nicholas Britell

I left Mr. Britell off of my Best Of 2018 because I had yet to see either this or Vice, but I knew back in December that this is absolutely sumptuous work. If there’s a common thread among this Best Original Score nominees, it’s the ways in which they go down some genuinely unexpected avenues. Here, it’s string-heavy compositions tagging in for big New Orleans brass. Rather than big and bold, Britell goes for threadbare and dreamy, with a main theme that sounds romantic and hopeful and lonely and bruised all at once. This is ambient chamber music that’s slowly melted into early Miles Davis.

If Beale Street Could Talk features shots from Barry Jenkins where wordless images seem to evoke whole relationships or entire histories. Britell is essential to this alchemy. There’s a synesthesia in his collaborations, both here and on Moonlight. This time, both tragically and poetically, he’s crafted sounds that seem to dissolve and reform at the same time, forever flirting with love and horror.

Black Panther — Ludwig Goransson

I’ve seen a few referendums on First Man getting snubbed, but unless we’re turning this award into Damien Chazelle’s consolation prize, that wouldn’t affect anything here anyway. All due respect to “Shallows” fans, but Black Panther was cinema’s greatest musical achievement in 2018. This isn’t just what it represents artistically. Alongside the themes and the box office pull and Michael B. Jordan’s performance, Goransson’s music will stand the test of time. It’s another small miracle in a movie that could have easily been “Black Winter Soldier” in lesser hands.

For all its chaos and crowd-sourced changes, the Oscars got its representation act together this year. A little, at least. And while it seems silly to say with a category featuring Terence Blanchard and then four white dudes, Best Original Score is a part of that. Black Panthers music for paying homage to black culture, and quite frankly, Beale Street’s for propping it up. And so long as it’s one of them bringing it home, it’s a win.

weezer sucks now

Eulogy for a rock band

I liked Weezer’s “Africa.”

Sue me. It wasn’t remarkable or inventive. It didn’t present a popular song in a new or interesting way. What it was was random, random to the point of becoming a meme. It basically started as one, with an extremely specific Twitter account’s request for the band to play Toto’s 1982 hit. After much back and forth, and even some fun had by Toto themselves, Weezer finally made good on the promise last May. And like I said, it was completely fine.

I say “was” because what began as an amusing, meme-worthy aside turned into too much of a thing. Weezer parodied the “Undone” music video, with an appearance by Weird Al Yankovic. They proceeded to make the live TV rounds, with appearances by Weird Al Yankovic. And finally, last month, Weezer released yet another self-titled record consisting entirely of crowd-pleasing covers.

Nicknamed The Teal Album, Weezer’s latest features a few tepid takes — there’s a solid synergy between the band’s present-day cheese rock and the sunniness of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” — to more questionable ones — their version of “Paranoid” sounds exactly like Sabbath and yet amazingly only dilutes the original. Then there’s the plain dumb, a category which encompasses everything from a ballsy whiff at “Billie Jean” to Rivers Cuomo sing-rapping over a tone-deaf iteration of “No Scrubs.”

In other words, Weezer drove this damn thing into the ground.

Perhaps Weezer never got the joke in the first place. Perhaps they didn’t understand what made releasing a no-frills cover of an 80s hit — a move that, to my naive self, seemed both ironic and sincere — so fun. After all, this is the same band who thought it was a good idea to go on late night and play “I’m Your Daddy” in branded Snuggies.

The store clerk quietly mocked me for buying Raditude on release day, by the way. I also cringed at the Red Album’s cover. And yet despite such a perfect distillation of the average dad’s Facebook profile photo warning me away from heartbreak, I bought the damn thing and spent a month obsessing over whether or not “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived” was Rivers’ secret apology for selling his indie soul to the pop charts. I am a sad rube closing in on almost two decades of waiting for a record that’s never coming. And because of that, they will never stop disappointing.

I deserve all of this, because I am part of the problem. Because I know that, come December, I’ll get an email from Spotify with a vanilla cover of “Take On Me” laughing down at me from the top of my “Year In Music” list. Liking Weezer in 2019 is like being gaslit by your corny uncle. I am hostage to this Rockholm Syndrome.

Oh god.

The people you depend on

Like most Americans who don’t commute to D.C., I’m grateful that the longest government shutdown in U.S. history is over.

Political issues aside, what had become increasingly apparent over the last few days is that yes, the public sector is essential for security and safety and simply, a semblance of normalcy. They are air traffic controllers and tax agents and food inspectors and airport security and national park employees. They are legion.

As easy it is to poke fun at government workers, we all need them and the services they provide. Every one of us. They are more substantial than policy. They are more important than sanctimony. In a month, when this whole border wall fight resumes, I’ll still have this as a personal reminder:

Potter-head, revisited

I spent a good chunk of last year’s reading revisiting Harry Potter. Despite having watch several of the movie adaptations many, many times (especially everyone’s favorite The Prisoner of Azkaban), I had only read J.K. Rowling’s books once and felt it was high time to give them another shot.

Much to my delight, the experience was a sincere pleasure, defined by warm nostalgia and new surprises. With the exception of The Order of the Phoenix, which as a teenager I found to be overly long and clumsy, I could easily recall the broad plots of each book. But it was the finer points that proved to be the greatest joys, diving back into the world-building and minutiae and faux-Latin incantations.

What’s more, The Order of the Phoenix read much better this time. Not only does Rowling further develop and expand the dangers facing the Wizarding World (hence a big chunk of that aforementioned slow start), but I also had overlooked just how insufferable teenage Harry was. I have often thought that Harry Potter made for a relatively vanilla protagonist, a blank reader-friendly canvas propelled along by some gibberish about a prophecy. In Book 5 though, Harry’s self-discovery strays into self-centeredness, with his bravery becoming indignation in the face of (understandably) infuriating bureaucracy

I want to focus on The Deathly Hallows though, it being the last and therefore freshest in my mind. This was more of a mixed bag. Yes, the Epilogue’s efficient sentimentality remains awkward, but out of 700-plus pages, that’s always been a low-hanging criticism. In Book 7, Rowling injects so much chaos and confusion into what her previous six installments had focused on, and on face value, that’s good. Except she writes herself into too many corners, and too often her escapes come by way of coincidence. Harry just happening to overhear critical information on the Sword of Gryffindor is a pretty underwhelming fix to his questing after one of the Horcruxes; ditto for Crabbe just happening to have been taught a complex spell that could destroy another soul-bound artifact. Far too many chapters end with a sudden explosion or a wizard disapparating only to have Hermione or Ron or some other sudden, convenient force explain to a befuddled Harry what just happened. Harry is not all-powerful, nor should he be, and taking the wind out his sails is a genuine strength in these later books. But cozy conveniences of escaping a Death-Eater ambush mitigates a lot of the immediate danger. It’s as if Rowling handed over the trickier passages to the Room of Requirement.

(Speaking of writing one’s self into corners, is there any way for wizard combat to not look dumb? People yell gibberish at one another with sticks. I recognize that a series about wizards is never going to be ostensibly ridiculous on some level, but Rowling never really figured out how to show magical fights in a compelling way. It’s actually for this reason that I appreciate her telling much of the opening moments of “The Battle of Hogwarts” away from Harry, Ron and Hermione’s treasure-hunting.)

Still, some of Deathly Hallows‘s strengths are high points for the entire series. Harry, Ron, and Hermione dropping out of Hogwarts is an inspired shake-up on a dependable formula, and while “camping in the British wilderness” may not have met everyone’s expectations, it gives the trio an unfiltered opportunity to hash out their longstanding issues between all the self-defeating detective work. In much the same way it informed The Last Jedi, disappointment and failure are rife, most notably in the unearthing of Dumbledore’s past. After cagey bedside conversations and aloof advice, Harry’s true father figure is revealed to be less of an infallible authority and more of a flesh-and-blood person, and that’s always a good thing when dealing with dragons and reanimated corpses.

Rowling goes full circle on so much of her mythology. Nearly Headless Nick gets a key moment to shine, and there are callbacks to the Bust of Paracelsus and Dumbeldore’s deluminator. Hagrid carrying Harry is an especially touching echo of The Sorcerer’s Stone‘s first moments. Rowling blurs the consciousnesses of Harry and Voldemort throughout, complicating what had previously been a relatively linear connection between protagonist and villain with — for a YA novel at least — a pretty ballsy storytelling device that disorients time and place for the reader on multiple occasions. It feels like the inevitable endpoint of the strange and unknown magic Remus Lupin warns Harry of early on; a giant snake assuming the identity of an old witch is just the tip of the iceberg.

Even so, The Half-Blood Prince is the best book in the series. It further explores Harry’s entitled martyrdom with winking references to convenience (see: Felix Felicis) and uglier mutations of Harry Potter Stans (see: Horace Slughorn). And of course, the titular prince’s note-riddled textbook proves to be behind much of Harry’s academic success in Book 6, only to have the source of that success curdle with the infamous confrontation atop the lightning-struck tower. There’s a meta curiosity with book-bound obsession there that really works with the ferocious devotion of fandom. That it becomes a cautionary tale is just about perfect.

paddington-2-best-pop-culture-2018

2018 in review

Last year, I wrote about how my renewed interest in reading meant less time to watch stuff. That’s a habit I intentionally tried repeating this year, although moving across the country half way through put a damper on that. (Then again, being between jobs for several months did, too.)

2018 is also when I really found myself trying to be conscious of screen time. I can’t remember being this dedicated to turning on “Do Not Disturb” in iOS or leaving my phone in another room full stop. A lot of that was for self-care. I quit Snapchat outright and started checking Facebook once every other day, and I still don’t understand my relationship with Twitter. Having a small computer on me at all times is great for keeping up with current events and sports and music and people in my life that I care about. But for me, a smart phone is also a source of distraction and FOMO and stress. Inevitably, my “Fewer Screens” philosophy applied to TVs and movie theaters, too; I think I only watched five new shows in 2018.

In their year-end episode, the excellent pop culture podcast The Watch talked about how culture’s relationship with the current state of heightened American life became increasingly complicated. I’m particularly siding with co-host Chris Ryan here:

I’ve felt a little subsumed by world events. And I think it’s inevitably impacted my appreciation of culture… It’s different, obviously, from 10 years ago, or 5 years ago even, where I feel like culture is a respite from the real world. I [feel] like [culture is] still trying to wrestle with what it’s going to say about the real world. Sometimes reality is so much more perverse or dramatic than whatever you would see on screen or listen to in music that it’s been a little difficult for me to negotiate that divide.

This is why Hereditary and, alternately, Paddington 2 have stuck with me for so long. While one is a painful reflection, the other feels like it’s mapping out a way forward. Paradoxically, both feel essential to our current moment.

In the same way politics and world events have shaped virtually all aspects of culture, my shying away from media was an occasional refuge from that. You can’t turn off the world, but 2018 showed me you can still adjust the volume. With that in mind:

Albums

10. The Wizard — Merlin
9. Prequelle — Ghost
8. DAYTONA — Pusha T
7. Kids See Ghosts — Kids See Ghosts
6. Wide Awake! — Parquet Courts
5. God’s Favorite Customer — Father John Misty
4. Ye — Kanye West
3. Twin Fantasy — Car Seat Headrest
2. Golden Hour — Kacey Musgraves
1. Lamp Lit Prose — Dirty Projectors

Songs

10. “Let’s Party” — The Sloppy Boys
9. “Miasma” — Ghost
8. “Anxious” — Hippo Campus
7. “All the Stars” — Kendrick Lamar feat. SZA
6. “No Going Back” — Yuno
5. “Hangout at the Gallows” — Father John Misty
4. “Freeee” — Kids See Ghosts
3. “How Long? — Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
2. “Tea for Two” — Albert Hammond, Jr.
1. “That’s a Lifestyle” — Dirty Projectors

TV Shows

5. Queer Eye
4. American Vandal
3. The Good Place
2. GLOW
1. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Films

10. Roma
9. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
8. Black Panther
7. First Man
6. Eighth Grade
5. Widows
4. First Reformed
3. Paddington 2
2. Minding the Gap
1. Hereditary