“Star Wars: Thrawn” by Timothy Zahn

Star_Wars_Thrawn-Timothy_ZahnStar Wars fans who never read the Expanded Universe novels might not recognize Grand Admiral Thrawn, but he’s become one of the most popular characters in the franchise. Thrawn initially appeared in Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy, which was in the early 1990s as the official sequel to the Original Trilogy. For the first time, we learned what happened to Luke, Leia, and Han after Return of the Jedi. With Vader and the Emperor dead, Thrawn took lead the remnants of the Empire against the New Republic government. Thrawn was a new type of Star Wars villain, a mix of Sherlock Holmes and Erwin Rommel who used brilliant military tactics to defeat his opponents. Moreover, he was an alien who rose through the ranks of the xenophobic Empire. Continue reading

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“Beauty is a Wound” by

30983524I read this book for an Indonesian class, but also read the English translation. It’s not a book I would have chosen to read on my own initiative as I’m not a fan of magical realism, but I thought I’d share my thoughts here because what I read felt very different from what I expected after reading reviews online. Continue reading

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“In Calabria” by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite books, so I could hardly contain my excitement when I saw that he’d written a new story about unicorns. In Calabria is a short story about Claudio Bianchi, an Italian farmer whose life has seemingly fallen into a rut. At least until a pregnant unicorn visits his villa. In Calabria isn’t a sequel to The Last Unicorn, but in some ways it serves as a spiritual successor. The book addresses some of the same themes as The Last Unicorn, including mortality, modernity, and mundanity. It also contains the beautiful language and sense of whimsy I’ve come to expect from Beagle’s best works. Continue reading

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“George Lucas” by Brian Jay Jones

I read Brian Jay Jones’ biography of Jim Henson when it first came out and found myself captivated. Jones conveyed Henson’s passion for his work and his joie de vivre. When I saw that Jones had written a book about George Lucas, I was cautiously optimistic. I was interested to see what somebody with Jones’ talent could do with one of the most influential filmmakers in history. On the other hand, I wondered if the world really needed another biography of George Lucas. Continue reading

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“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

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When news broke in 2012 that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm, some fans worried that Disney would “Disneyfy” the Star Wars franchise by making it too kid-friendly. After all, despite George Lucas’ protestations that Star Wars was made for kids, the original six had some very dark moments. Lucas even consulted a psychologist to make sure the big revelation in “The Empire Strikes Back” would not scar young children (the psychologist concluded most kids simply wouldn’t believe that Vader was Luke’s father). Would Disney dare to tell a story with shades of gray and dark undertones?

Rogue One proves such fears unfounded. Rogue One is perhaps the least “Disneyfied” film ever released by Disney. Some of the protagonists engage in morally questionable actions and not everyone lives happily ever after.

Rogue One takes place very shortly before the fourth Star Wars film, A New Hope (hint: it might be worth rewatching Episode IV before seeing Rogue One). The Rebel Alliance learns about the Death Star from Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) and sends Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Rebel operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and the sarcastic droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to investigate. They discover that Erso’s father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is one of the top engineers working on the Death Star. He offers to leak the Death Star plans to the Rebels (yes, the same plans that R2-D2 delivers to the Rebels in A New Hope).

The most impressive thing about Rogue One is its tone. As The Economist notes, the Rebellion in Rogue One is “a messier business involving guerilla combat, collateral damage, squabbling factions and unheroic deaths.” This is a far cry from in “A New Hope,” which depicted the Rebels as a ragtag group of idealists. Yet, over the course of “Rogue One,” the Rebellion morphs into the one we saw in “A New Hope.” Yet, although Rogue One adopts the trappings of a war film, it allows the characters to overcome the cynicism that usually dominates such movies. As the Rebels learn to work together and succeed in early missions, they begin to rediscover hope. By the end of the film, the protagonists are acting every bit as heroically as a Luke and Leia. It’s a clever way to combine the grit and darkness of a war film alongside the fun and adventure of a Star Wars movie.

This is a tough balancing act. Since the end of the Vietnam War, most war movies have focused on the horrors of war and eschewed any sense of adventure or idealism. Saving Private Ryan refuses to romanticize the crusade against Nazism, even though World War II holds a special place in American mythology. On the other hand, other pop culture franchises have tried to make their versions of war films, but they have generally failed to capture the chaos and brutality of war. Director Joss Whedon incorporated many war film tropes in Avengers, but the alien attack on New York City lacks any sense of urgency or desperation. That Rogue One feels comfortable as both a war film and a Star Wars film is a testament to director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy.

Disney CEO Bob Iger promised that Rogue One isn’t political, and indeed Rogue One eschews explicit political analogies. However, like the Original Trilogy, the film engages with ideas and imagery of contemporary politics. In Return of the Jedi, George Lucas loosely based the Ewoks on the Vietcong. But for the size of the trees, the traps the Ewoks used against the Empire could very well have been used against American GIs in the forests of Vietnam. As blogger Darren Mooney notes, Rogue One updates the Star Wars visual vocabulary for the War on Terror. Initially, the Rebels come across as intergalactic terrorists. There’s a scene on the desert planet Jedha in which Rebels ambush an Imperial convoy in a crowded market that looks like it could have come straight out of The Hurt Locker (but for the aliens and Stormtrooper armor, of course). Meanwhile, the bureaucratic bickering amongst the Imperials should be familiar to anybody who has observed the U.S. government’s attempts to counter terrorism.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how Rogue One approaches continuity. This is, after all, a prequel to a film released in 1977, and it ties in pretty well despite the 40-year gap. I was worried that Disney would include too much fan service and callbacks to A New Hope that didn’t serve the story. Fortunately, most of those references make sense in context. For example, the production team went to great lengths to recreate Grand Moff Tarkin in CGI (the original actor, Peter Cushing, passed away in 1994). Tarkin serves as a foil for Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the primary antagonist in the film. Seeing Tarkin and Krennic jockeying for power adds a welcome layer of complexity and character depth. There is some gratuitous fan service in Rogue One, especially near the end, but nothing as distracting as constant references and in-jokes in The Force Awakens.

As other reviewers have noted, the film’s biggest weakness is the characters. The characters are all engaging, but they exist as broad archetypes and lack defined arcs (aside from Jyn and Cassian). As much as I would have like to have seen more of these characters, I think they work well enough for the film. After all, this is a war movie, not a Shakespearean character study like the prequels. As in most war movies, Rogue One gives each character few personality quirks, a bit of backstory, and one or two memorable moments. The characters serve primarily as a vehicle through which to explore the conflict. Chirrut Îmwe and Bodhi Rook will never be as memorable or as well developed as an Obi-Wan Kenobi or Finn, but they also don’t need to be. Besides, how many of us remember the names of the characters from Black Hawk Down or The Deer Hunter?

Rogue One isn’t a “great” film, but it is a very entertaining one. This is the first live-action Star Wars movie without a Skywalker, without Jedi, without a John Williams soundtrack, and without an opening crawl… yet it still feels like Star Wars.* Or, more accurately, it feels like the way a kid playing with Star Wars action figures might fill in the gaps between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, which is appropriate because Edwards described making Rogue One as akin to playing in the “world’s greatest toy set.” There’s a sense of freedom in not being weighed down by all the expectations of the franchise (something The Force Awakens couldn’t entirely escape). In short, Rogue One gives me hope that Disney can continue making Star Wars movies long after it concludes the saga of the Skywalkers.

* The live-action Ewok movies also broke these Star Wars conventions, but those films were made-for-TV, never shown in theaters.

This review originally appeared on Legendarium Media.

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“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

mv5bmjmxotm1oti4mv5bml5banbnxkftztgwode5otyxmdi-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is the first Harry Potter movie not based directly on one of J.K. Rowling’s novels (although she did write the script).* The movie takes place in New York City in 1926, over 70 years before Harry Potter first went to Hogwarts. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an eccentric wizard/zoologist, accidentally releases some of his magical creatures while visiting America. He teams up with Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an agent of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). They also encounter Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a muggle—or No-Maj to the Americans—who dreams about opening a pastry shop. Together, the three of them track down Newt’s creatures before they can wreck havoc on New York City. There’s also a subplot involving an anti-wizard movement led by the headmistress of a Dickensian orphanage, Chastity Barebone (Jenn Murray). Continue reading

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“Invisible Planets” & Chinese Sci-fi

5156c3sbiolThere’s a tendency to think of science fiction as a uniquely – or at least primarily – Anglo-American phenomenon. During the 20th century, the most prominent sci-fi authors were either British or American. Moreover, they were, with a few exceptions, white males. Some writers, such as Ursula K. Le Guin, tried to incorporate non-Western philosophies like Taoism or Buddhism into their writing, but they were often the exception. Most sci-fi seemed firmly rooted in the Enlightenment. In the Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, scholars discuss racial and gender diversity in the genre, but still tend to focus on British or American authors. With few exceptions, no non-English sci-fi story has made an appreciable impact on Western audiences. Continue reading

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“Star Trek: DS9” & International Development

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Star TrekPopMatters is running a series of articles about the franchise. I wrote a piece about Deep Space Nine and the politics of international development. I argue that the show takes a surprisingly nuanced approach to foreign aid. Some of what I discuss is based on my experience working for democratization projects in Southeast Asia. Check it out here!

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“The Telling” by Ursula K. Le Guin

leguincoverartOver the next few weeks, Mythgard is running a free online course on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I’m rereading Le Guin’s Hainish books in order to prepare. The Telling is the most recent book in the series, published in 2000.

In some ways, The Telling is a synthesis of Le Guin’s previous Hainish novels. It combines the political skepticism of The Dispossessed, the anti-imperialism of The Word for World is Forest, and the intimacy of The Left Hand of Darkness. Yet, Le Guin never simply rehashes previous work. The Telling has its own identity as an exploration of how cultures survive government attempts to homogenize them. Continue reading

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“The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Over the next few weeks, Mythgard is running a free online course on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I’m rereading Le Guin’s Hainish books in order to prepare. 

The Word for World is Forest continues Ursula K. Le Guin’s exploration of injustice. This time, she focuses on cultural and environmental destruction. In the distant future, humans colonize the planet Athshe for its timber resources. Le Guin alternates between Davidson, a human military officer, and Selver, an Athshean native whose wife Davidson had raped and killed. This isn’t one of Le Guin’s subtler novels, but it is a well written parable about the dangers of first contact.

Continue reading

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