Friday, December 29, 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star Wars: the Last Jedi is a terrific middle entry that features more growth for the next generation of heroes, as well as a bittersweet end to a legend. As always, the space dogfights and lightsaber battles are thrilling, John Williams' score is perfect, and plot twists provide shock and/or delight. This movie has me looking forward to the next one.

Rian Johnson wrote and directed The Last Jedi, and I'm an unabashed fan of his previous work, particularly Brick and Looper. Here, he places heavy emphasis on the evolution of the main characters, plotting out their respective journeys as the Resistance hovers on the verge of annihilation: Poe ignores orders out of his zeal to ensure the survival of the fleeing Resistance; Finn and newcomer Rose Tico execute an unauthorized plan to save the home team, and Rey receives lessons about the Force from the now-reclusive Luke Skywalker.

All the young 'uns become better for it in the end: Poe learns to puts aside his impulsiveness and aggression to observe and come to the correct conclusions; Rey becomes even stronger and more determined; and Finn is gifted this gem of wisdom by Rose: “That's how we're gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” Annnd smooch. Kidding aside, that's a powerful line that highlights the difference between the light of the Resistance and the darkness of the First Order.

Meanwhile, the veterans play significant roles in imparting their wisdom to the new heroes. Leia is her usual self, formidable and sweet at the same time. She literally slaps Finn for being so hotheaded, and calmly weathers the First Order's attacks. Her second-in-command, Admiral Holdo, is similarly even-keeled, looming over a shouting Poe and quietly dismissing him. Finn and Rose learn a hard lesson from DJ, who promises to help destroy the First Order's ability to track the Resistance fleet through light speed. And Rey wrests the truth from Luke, and from herself.

Luke is the key in The Last Jedi. He symbolizes hope and power, and his self-imposed exile is the result of his self-loathing after what he sees as his failure with Ben Solo and his Jedi students. His lessons to Rey about what the Force is and isn't are stern and sometimes humorous...and highly effective. His conversation with Yoda is enlightening, too, proving that no one can out-master the little green guy. Once Luke absorbs his master's final lesson, he makes his decision and is at peace.

And boy, what a decision! Off Luke goes to confront Kylo Ren, who is slightly less whiny this time around. Kylo reveals that his goal is to wipe out both the Resistance and the First Order, and to create something new from the ashes. He offers Rey a place by his side, but she knows he's a complete tool and rejects him. When Luke shows up for the obligatory dramatic confrontation with his former pupil, Kylo predictably reacts petulantly, which the remnants of the Resistance use to their advantage. Luke's sacrifice allows Leia's people to escape, and thus the stage is set for the final reckoning between the forces of light and darkness.

Overall, The Last Jedi is a true epic, and I don't just mean the running time--the themes of good versus evil, self-discovery, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, love, friendship, and more are showcased to great effect by engaging characters and an entertaining script. The unexpected funny moments, like the Chewbacca-porgs interactions and Luke's snide one-liners, are very welcome. A lot happens, and it serves to propel the story--and the Star Wars series--forward in a new direction. And that's fine by me.

TL;DR: I liked it and I can't wait for the next one! Also, RIP, Carrie Fisher. You are missed.


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Thursday, December 14, 2017

2017 List: Book Recommendations

Ho! Ho! Ho! As Christmas approaches and Mariah Carey's power grows, I want to take a moment to remind you, my ducklings, that books are our friends. They take us away from all this. With the various entertainment options available to us -- Netflix, Buzzfeed, PS4, YouTube, judging passersby -- nothing is quite as calming as sitting down with a great page-turner.

Here are 12 great books to check out, if you haven't, based on your nerd type:

Space Nerd (Sci-fi)

Top Pick! Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (2015)
This book feels especially relevant as we longingly cast our eyes heavenward and dream of escaping this hell planet. In Seveneves, a thinly-veiled Neil deGrasse Tyson character sounds the alarm about an impending extinction-type event for humanity. A Hillary-type president oversees the global program that will send small groups of people off planet to weather out the cataclysm. Astronauts already in space will never touch land again. Power struggles ensue. Philosophical questions abound. Who deserves to live and pass on their genes? What's the point of it all? And, since this is my man Neal, walls of text are lovingly devoted to the intricacies of technology, and the unexpected happens regularly. Seveneves is an epic that deserves you, Space Nerd.

Another Top Pick! Existence by David Brin (2012)
There's a lot going on in Existence, but essentially it's about first contact events that converge with a worldwide conspiracy to control scientific progress. Brin throws everything and the kitchen sink into the mix--attached tech, smart mobs, near-total surveillance, autism, genetic experiments--and it works! The main characters are compelling, the twists are incredible, and one of the best parts is that all the future tech (circa 2050) he describes are plausible. There are tons of ideas this novel, and if you enjoyed 1990's Earth, I urge you to pick up the equally mind-blowing Existence as well.

FTW Nerd (Science, Nonfiction)
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (2016)
This treasure of microbiology liberally uses analogies so even the non-scientifically-inclined -- you poor dears -- become infected with Yong's enthusiasm for the sheer dominance and adaptability of the countless members of the microbial kingdom. Yong reveals to readers the bacteria in our bodies, in animals, and under the soil and sea. A terrific intro to the field.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Johnson (2006)
A tale of how a terrible cholera epidemic led to an investigation that eventually validated the idea of waterborne disease transmission. Also a striking portrait of how London was both gross and awesome as an urban center in its early industrial days, before clean air and water became political priorities. Overall, a brilliant account about overcoming frightening adversity.

An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine by Howard Markel (2011)
Markel details the downfall and redemption of two prominent doctors who became addicted to the then-new pharmaceutical hotness, cocaine. In the process, he chronicles some of the horrors that accompanied medical practice in the 19th century, such as surgeries performed without anesthesia or hand washing. The point is, coke was awesome...until it wasn't.

Sophisticated Nerd (History, Nonfiction)

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage (2005)
Standage chronicles the rise of the beverages that played key roles in societal development: beer (the best!), wine (also pretty good), spirits like whisky and rum (yuck), coffee (*nods approval*), tea (flavonoids!), and Coca-Cola (ew). It's a very easy read, with each drink corresponding to a particular time period, region(s), and society(ies). Appropriately, he ends with a note about how water is the new "it" drink--how far we've come from throwing stuff in it and boiling it just so it doesn't kill us!  

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing (1959)
This is a straightforward retelling of Ernest Shackleton's expedition to the Antarctic, featuring: ice! A shipwreck! Leopard seals! Pemmicans (protein+fat mush)! Lansing's work closely details how Shackleton and his men achieve such a breathtaking feat of survival in the most inhospitable conditions. Chilling stuff. *wink emoji*

Mystery Nerd (Mystery, YA)

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (2012)
This is a thrilling, fantasy-heavy take on social, religious, and technological upheaval in the Middle East. Alif is a hacker who comes into conflict with the head of state cybersecurity, and must rely on the secret book of the jinn, the Alf Yeom (The Thousand and One Days) to defeat his nemesis. Its characters are memorable, the pacing is on point, and each chapter ends on an almost lyrical note. A great read if you want something immersive yet fairly light.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)
A young thief is sent on a job where nothing is as it seems and everyone is hiding something. It's an enjoyable yarn, and another look into the darker areas of ye olde London. This was recently adapted into a movie set in 1930s  Korea (Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden) that promises sexy lesbian time! I'm in.
Literary Snob Nerd (Award-winning fiction)

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014)
Spoiler alert: it's not brief. Initially set in Jamaica, this Man Booker Prize winner is an epic fictionalization of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the seventies, and the move of the island's drug trade to New York in the following decades. It's dense and batshit insane and features multiple, often high (as in, on heroin, etc.) voices--and it's quite the experience. This is basically the book equivalent of Requiem for a Dream in terms of underlining the horrors of drug addiction.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
A fiery missionary transplants his wife and four young daughters to a village in the Congo in 1959. Told from the perspective of the women, it's a story of suffering, growth, death, political turmoil, and human connections. This book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Boeke Prize winner.

BONUS! The-Book-Was-Much-Better/Insufferable Nerd

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (1958)
Audrey Hepburn's iconic turn as Holly Golightly is most closely associated to Breakfast at Tiffany's, and I haven't watched the film so I can't really speak to how well she captures book Holly, but let me tell ya -- book Holly is nuts. She's an outspoken, progressive teenager who's up at all hours schmoozing with rich men to maintain her socialite lifestyle. Get it, girl!

In conclusion, happy holidays, and reading good books = time well spent. The next two on my reading list are Packing for Mars by Mary Roach and The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould.

TL;DR: Books! Read them!


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