Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Spoiler Review

The Last Jedi

My overall impression was that this was an OK film, but there was far too much repetition of the old trilogy. I got a heavy Hobbit vibe from this trilogy. Peter Jackson wanted to repeat the success of the Lord of the Rings but now with MORE of the same scenes and MORE computer-generated creatures, and so made a story that was heavy on visuals but weak on story and power. These new Star Wars episodes are exactly like that, and I’ll try to explain why I think about them this way.

This movie suffers a lot from sacrificing common sense for dramatic purposes. You can’t tell me that Snoke’s big ship cannot launch another ship to take out the fleeing rebels. You can’t tell me that both of the First Order leaders need to be present on the ground during the final assault. You can’t tell me that Finn needs to fly right into a laser beam to shoot into it. You can’t tell me that a whole hangar bay of storm troopers gets blasted to bits while Finn and that one woman don’t even have a scratch on their clothing. Or that a bomber ship needs to drift to the right position so that gravity (in space?) will make bombs drop on a ship. Or that you can destroy stuff with hyperdrive jumps but this was never utilized before. Why not make missiles with hyperdrives on them? And so on and so forth.

The entire plot of the movie of Snoke’s ship crawling after the rebels while Finn and some woman take a side trip doesn’t make any sense in all of these ways. They have time to do this? They just leave the rebel ship that is being chased and tramp across the galaxy on some quest and then return to the pursued ship? And on their quest, couldn’t they have brought a refuel ship back with them?

This might sound like a lot of nitpicking, but these questions genuinely took me out of the movie while watching it. Star Wars may be some space fantasy series, but that doesn’t mean that you should disregard common logic. Besides all this, there are some moments of greatness in this film. There are some very satisfying dramatic moments and visually stunning shots. The film has the dramatic down and some of the humor worked well.

I am really glad that the climax of this film didn’t involve another Death Star. That got old fast. Instead, they copied the opening act of The Empire Strikes Back as the climax. In general, this movie feels as if the screenwriters took The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and copied and pasted some of the highlights into this one. So, Rey got her training scene and her descend into a dark pit to confront herself (although that didn’t lead anywhere). But we also got the throne room showdown from Return of the Jedi somewhere in the middle of the story, complete with a torn Kylo Ren and a gloating Emperor.

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Speaking of Snoke and other assorted bad guys, such as Phasma, what was up with these characters anyway? Snoke got a quick introduction in The Force Awakens and now he is gone in a showdown that seemed to happen way too early into the story. Was that it? Who was this guy? Was he connected with Palpatine? The Emperor’s theme music from Return of the Jedi was playing during Snoke’s scenes, but what does that mean? And Phasma was probably meant as some sort of devil from the past for Finn, but that storyline didn’t add much emotional power to these films. They might as well have cut that out. Bunch of useless characters, really.

Speaking of characters, Rey and Kylo are the only remotely interesting ones so far. Chewy and R2D2 are still around but don’t amount to anything (but then again, this is not their story anymore). But Finn and Poe and that one Asian woman whom I can’t remember the name of, they don’t do anything for me. Finn’s little adventure in space-Monaco was a strange little side-quest and its only purpose seemed to be to throw more CGI creatures at the screen.

The movie did handle Luke Skywalker very well, just like The Force Awakens handled Han Solo very well. He got a good, believable arc, and his particular ending had a poetry to it that reached back all the way to the young Luke Skywalker as a farmer, watching a binary sunset. The circle was complete for him. As far as Luke is concerned, this film is a fine addition to the old story. Rey and Kylo were also very consistent characters and Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver both do an excellent job here.

So, some of this film works quite well. Some of the characters and their arcs are fine. It handles Luke’s legacy well and visually it is stunning to look at. But the story is a cut-and-paste mashup of the old trilogy with a thousand frilly edges that don’t make any sense to me. If you were to remove everything that was copied from older material and everything that didn’t make sense, there would be almost nothing left.

7/10

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20 favorite books I read this year.

2017 was all in all a great year for my fantasy and science fiction reading. I started a couple of famous series for the first time and I read many authors for the first time.

Broken Earth

The straight-up best series of books I read this year was N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Two of these books, The Fifth Season and The Stone Sky I would rate 9/10 and they are both in my top 5 books of the year. The middle book, The Obelisk Gate, wasn’t bad either, but still felt like a lull in the story. I hope this series will be a classic in the future because I really think it is up there with the best series ever to grace the genres.

Fractured Europe

An underappreciated SF series that I greatly enjoyed was Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe series. Europe in Autumn kicks things off with a fascinating future splintered Europe and Europe at Midnight increases the scope exponentially. Only in Europe in Winter did the story start running out of steam. What shines is Hutchinson’s witty and vibrant writing.

Stormlight Archive

I started out reading Brandon Sanderson for the first time, tackling The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance over the summer. I haven’t started the new book Oathbringer yet, but it is fun to bite down into a long, deep fantasy series again.

Expanse

I also started reading James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, reading along with the TV show. Leviathan Wakes was an exciting, well-plotted adventure with some fun characters. Caliban’s War was more of the same but still essential reading because it introduced Avasarala and the political storylines. I foresee that I will slowly make my way through the series.

2017 was also a year of closing some earlier series. I finally got my hands on R. Scott Bakker’s The Unholy Consult, the final book of the second arc, and this one had a power of vision unmatched since Tolkien himself. I also tackled Cixin Liu’s Death’s End. Some great ideas and theories in this one. Very unpredictable in general, this series, and therefore a lot of fun. Also, the essential Dan Simmons duology Ilium and Olympos was very satisfying and impressive, and Jeff VanderMeer is going strong with Borne. But perhaps the best book I read this year was Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. That’s great writing, full of verve, dazzling metaphors, great characters and a fascinating world.

There were also some series that I started but I haven’t felt the interest to continue. Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit was interesting but hard to get a clear picture of in my mind. I didn’t live inside me. David D. Levine’s Arabella of Mars was a cute novel, but ultimately left me a bit bored. I also feel conflicted about China Mieville’s output lately. His novellas and short stories didn’t do much for me.

For 2018…

I just started Joe Abercrombie for the first time. Looking forward to reading The First Law trilogy. I’m working through some more Alastair Reynolds for his sequel to The Prefect, so I need to read that one first. Also looking forward to the final part of B. Catling’s Vorrh trilogy.

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The Girl With All the Gifts (2016) Review

The Girl with all the gifts

I have to whisper to you a secret. I am totally done with zombies and dystopian futures. Besides superheroes, this decade has been the decade of zombie outbreaks and YA dystopias in which adults are meanyheads to teenagers. Now, when the wave of these cultural phenomena is coming down, in the late-twilight stage of these hypes, I am watching The Girl With All the Gifts. It’s based on a popular book published in 2014 during the Hunger Games craze and almost immediately got opted for a movie translation, which arrived only two years later in 2016.

Of course it was opted for a movie right away, because it is a most successful marriage between the two genres. We start out with a girl who is “special”, “different”, like in the Divergent series. How so, this is where the zombie apocalypse comes in. Melanie lives in some kind of underground bunker where soldiers strap her down and keep her at gunpoint (very mean adults), while she just lives her life and is taught by Miss Justineau, a compassionate teacher. Very soon, we discover that Melanie is actually a rehabilitated zombie who learned to have a self again. She might hold the key to making an antidote to the zombie plague.

Soon, everything goes pear-shaped and Melanie, together with Miss Justineau, a soldier and a doctor find themselves on the run in zombie-invested England. They keep Melanie cuffed, except at times when she is of use because the zombies do not mind her. Melanie is played by Sennia Nanua in way where I can’t decide whether her acting wasn’t particularly strong, or whether Melanie as a character was just supposed to be a bit off. She is excessively polite to all the soldiers and teachers, greeting everyone by their name and title. I’m not sure why; maybe it is meant to show that she is kind and smart.

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The rest of the movie is mostly about their travels towards London. There are a couple more scenes revolving around kids, but this movie taught me that children acting as hungry zombies looks very fake, unless the cameras and editing do lots of work to make it real. In this film, however, the zombies made me giggle rather than tense up. They are just so clearly actors that I feel secondhand embarrassment to see them snarling and ogling.

The film is quite alright though. I’m being quite negative because the story feels like it is designed in a laboratory for maximum bandwagon success, but the story actually has some great twists and turns, especially at the beginning. It unfolds in a very intelligent way that keeps your interests. Visually, it is quite strong too. It has many good sets and the action is filmed very well, with great use of putting action in the foreground and background. There are some great panning shots during the action where people run from zombies and escape in the nick of time.

The story grows in scope as we move along, hinting at earlier classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 28 Days Later and I Am Legend. There is vision behind the film and overall it is worth a view. I even suspect that the hype surrounding zombie movies actually hurt this film, because (and I am guilty of this as well) it is now put into a box with many similar films so that we can say “oh these are all the same”. But The Girl With All the Gifts is an honest attempt at making something nice and is very aware of the history of the genres that it is part of.

7/10

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Alastair Reynolds – The Prefect / Aurora Rising (2007) Review

The Prefect

Series: Revelation Space / Dreyfus emergencies

I hate it when people rename books. Alastair Reynolds’ novel has been known as The Prefect for a decade now, but will be renamed to Aurora Rising in 2018, when a sequel comes out. Reynolds happened to dislike the original title, so there we are. In any case, an excellent time to crack open the 2007 novel in preparation for the sequel.

The prefect from the title is Tom Dreyfus, a police investigator of sorts under contract at the force called Panoply. He, together with his deputy Thalia Ng, investigate law infringements in the civilization known as the Glitter Band, a ring of hollowed-out asteroids and artificially constructed habitats orbiting in space around the faraway planet Yellowstone. About 100 million people live in tens of thousands of tumbling habitats. Some habitats are like kingdoms, others like entertainment parks. When one habitat is ripped open, apparently by the engines of a space-going vessel, Dreyfus and Ng investigate.

The thing is, with The Prefect getting a new title, it will be remarketed as the new, fresh starting point of a new series (the Dreyfus Emergencies), but is it truly? Can it be that? The question is whether that is the best way to regard or appreciate the novel, because it was only ever meant to be a prequel/spin-off to the Revelation Space series for long-time fans who knew what that universe was about.

But maybe I am overreacting. The novel is set chronologically a few hundred years or so before the events of that series. New readers may not know what Reynolds is talking about when he mentions Ultras, Hyperpigs or Chasm City, but SF veterans can pick up a lot from context.

Still, having read the earlier series will add a whole dimension to your experience. Revelation Space and what follows is set in a future dark age; a time in which the best technology is lost in the past. The heights of civilization were lost because of certain unpleasantries (that will surely pop up in future Dreyfus novels) and what was left turned into a gothic, nihilistic frontier. But with The Prefect we have a chance to see what civilization was in its glorious heyday. The difference is that long time readers know what dangers are encroaching upon this world, and thus know what the future series will tackle.

The story is a police procedural and quickly reminded me of the Blade Runner movies, especially when Dreyfus starts interviewing the backed-up virtual simulations of murdered people. The question of what makes a person a person is a strong theme, receiving many answers. It’s a classical noir investigation, full of uncovered secrets, moments of revelation and for Dreyfus a personal confrontation with his own past. Reynolds’s usual grim, steely tone actually fits the noir style very well.

The Prefect is a great addition to the other novels as the story cross-refers back to the conjoiners, Exordium and the Sylveste family, so deepening the world of Revelation Space as a whole. The setting of the Glitter Band makes for a wonderful romp around unusual societies, all separated within a short flight from each other. We get some fascinating glimpses into how the Band comes to decisions as a larger meta-society. As far as SF concepts go, the Glitter Band hints at what Karl Schroeder was fleshing out even more mind-blowingly in his Lady of Mazes (2005), and is an interesting addition to the corpus of SF locations.

The Glitter Band is Lady of Mazes-light. The sciencey stuff is interesting but none of it is truly mind-blowing or innovative. Reynolds wants to go for the action and entertainment factor instead. The mysteries feel relatively straightforward because many are quickly explained. Who, for example, is the mysterious Aurora? Who inside Panoply is involved? Where is the mysterious being named The Clockmaker? We are only allowed to ponder these mysteries for a short while because answers come quickly, or Reynolds never allowed them to become mysteries in the first place.

A noir mystery allows a story to move between many classes and societies, and to introduce many colorful personalities, but Reynolds quickly abandons that to go for superficial action. There is no atmosphere in his writing. No sense of mood or scene setting; there is only plot and talking heads. There is no weather in space, but this novel could have used some autumn leaves and snowfall. Compared to, say, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Reynolds’s mysteries and characters pale and his writing lacks verve.

Having said that, I still enjoyed the story. Perhaps I made the mistake of wishing that this book was something that it isn’t. The main problem is that there is just something mechanical about Reynolds’s writing that keeps me from immersing myself, and that made me wish for something more. I keep having this problem with all of his novels.

7.5/10

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Tulip Fever (2017) Review

Tulip Fever

I was actually looking forward to seeing this movie, because I am excited to see some Dutch history on the big screen. The tulip fever period was a crazy moment in the Dutch golden age and very interesting to read about. On top of that, the movie stars some well-known, talented actresses and actors. Strangely though, the movie very quickly disappeared from theatres and I’m not even sure it got a theatrical release here in the Netherlands, even though it is set here! (But mostly shot in the UK.)

So, what went wrong?

The story starts with Sophia (Alicia Vikander), a young woman, leaving the orphanage to become the wife of the rich merchant Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz). Theirs isn’t a very happy marriage. Old and rich Cornelis just wants a young wife and children, while Sophia is never asked about her wishes. Then, Sandvoort hires a painter named Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan) to make a portrait of his wife Sophia.

Van Loos treats Sophia with much greater reverence and admiration while painting her. Inevitably, Jan and Sophia fall for each other (after about 30 seconds, to be precise). The best way to make their affair work is to find and sell a priceless tulip, so they can start a life together. Meanwhile, the kitchen maid has a more authentic relationship with the fish boy. The bottom class in this society is rather romanticized as free and open, while Sophia is stuck in upper class prison where no real love exists.

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The production design is amazing and the film looks great. Shots remind you of those 17th century Dutch paintings where everyone wears black hats and white collars. It takes some work with expert use of light and camera angles to create a realistic, pre-electricity environment. Dark rooms and candlelight reflect in Sophia’s eyes. Alicia Vikander gives a very subtle performance where all her emotions can be read in her eyes, while Christoph Waltz is a delightfully arrogant, self-satisfied man. I’m still having my doubts about Dane DeHaan in every movie he appears.

Yet, so far, so good. A good plot, beautiful shots, nice montages. Everything is set up for a nicely dramatic love story. Both women try to keep their relationships a secret and hatch more and more plans to make everything work out. Here is where the story starts falling apart. Throughout the film so far, the dialogue and characters weren’t that strong, and I don’t feel very attached to what’s happening. But then, more and more plot and subplots start diluting the impact of the film. It’s just really hard to keep your attention with it.

Tulip Fever3

The romance storylines didn’t work for me, perhaps because Vikander and DeHaan’s chemistry wasn’t strong. The story in general just feels messy. It might sound good on paper, but on screen there is too much going on and nothing comes through. The film was heavily edited and reworked for two years before release, forcing it all into a streamlined story. An unnecessary, annoying voice-over was added. And after all that editing, all scenes are cut apart. There is no breathing space left in the film for individual scenes to make an impact. Too many cuts in editing and quick jumps in the story turn this Dutch painting into confetti.

The sad thing is that this a film filled with potential. The Dutch golden age could be a great period for a mood piece. A story revolving around the tulip fever could be fascinating. It’s lovely to look at; it’s just the story and characters that aim and miss. The film marches on bravely to wrap it all up, and is not without merit. It’s a film I hate to be negative about, but I can’t help it.

6/10

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Charles Foster – Being a Beast (2016) Review

Being a beast

It must be great having Charles Foster as a guest lecturer at University. He’ll surely be full of witty remarks and fascinating stories, of the kind that make you wonder whether he is serious or pulling your leg. His book, though, is rather bizarre yet strangely compelling. Foster is the kind of person who crawls around in the dirt, trying to catch earthworms with his teeth, just to find out what it is like being a badger.

So, his introduction expects quite an effort from us to try to get into his mindset. He starts out sharing his frustrations that it is so hard to know what it is like being another animal, then he goes on explaining that he believes quite a bit in shamanism and how humans can retrieve the animalistic roots of their own brains through drugs and extreme stress. Finally, he concludes that there are two ways in which we humans can try to understand what it is like being another animal. First, there is modern biology and everything it can tell us about the bodies, the brains and senses of an animal. Secondly, there is actually trying an animal’s lifestyle and see (and hear and taste) what it feels like.

This is where Foster relates how he tried to understand the urban fox by sleeping in a box in a garden for a day, shying away from the neighbors, pooping there, and being bored out of his skull for long hours.

Foster is a very talented and engaging writer; it makes me want to shower this review with quotes. But I can’t exactly find the right material to quote him on, because he wants to be rather macabre about his investigations. After a 2-page description on all the details and nuances of eating earthworms, he says that the diet of the badger is 85% earthworms, which “drains badgers of some of their charisma and makes them excitingly inaccessible.” He then lives in a self-dug hole in a hillside for a few months with his poor son, and then goes on imitating the lives of otters, deer, fox and swift.

Foster is all about immersion. Last year I read Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense which had the subtitle “what it is like being a bird”, but focused exclusively on biological facts. Foster really tries to strain his imagination to fill in the other side of the story: the experience of being another animal, and in how far that would be similar or different from being a human. He lies outside in the woods during a thunderstorm with his nose on the ground to sniff the smells coming from the soil. He enters from a philosophical and poetic angle, which makes for nice reading, but he does take many leaps of faith. He often “chooses to believe” in levels of awareness in animals.

Looking at online reviews, reactions to this book are extreme, with the most critical reviewers slamming it either as pretentious hippie nonsense or as showing arrogance and disrespect towards nature. I am willing to defend him taking a poetic view, and I’m a biologist myself. Yes, there is no real deep science being done in this book. And that’s fine. Nature is open to everyone and all kinds of experiences. I sense in Mr. Foster an honest, unabashed fascination for nature that has been with him since early childhood, an ironic self-awareness about his irregular behavior and an immense talent for talking about it.

But the farther I got into this book, the more my doubts grew. This book is deeply odd and filled with more pretention that one can normally stomach. The chapter about otters is mostly about Foster floating in a wetsuit in a river and pooping along the banks, romanticizing his every experience in barely-comprehensible poetical language. This guy is in love with his own words, and often seems more interested in being silly or disgusting rather than talking about the animals themselves.

More and more, I had no idea what he was going on about, and injects opinions about recreational hunting that I found off-putting. He is in favour of hunting via reasoning that deer supposedly “are designed to be food” and “expect to be killed”. Utter nonsense in my opinion. Food webs in nature are not designed; they emerge as a balance from the activity of many organisms finding a niche and trying to survive. And one species is not created to serve another species. And the whole discussion about whether animals can suffer is not even necessary if you just chose not to kill any for fun.

I’m having mixed feelings about this book in the end. Each chapter had less actual content and more pretentious rambling. Some of it was funny, some of it hard to digest. Foster strikes me as someone who wants to be fun at parties through shocking people with strange anecdotes, and this book is more about his antics than about the animals. Hear too much of him and his opinions start to annoy, so I’d like to recommend reading some other books in between the chapters.

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Score: A Film Music Documentary (2017) Review

Score

9/10

I’ve been a great fan of film music ever since I was a teenager, and there was a magical period in high school in which a couple of friends and I exchanged all the film music that we could find. I listened to all the great composers, like John Williams, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, Danny Elfman, and learned by heart all their scores.

I was mesmerized especially by James Horner’s Willow and Land Before Time, John Williams’s Jurassic Park and Hook, Danny Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands and John Debney’s CutThroat Island. From that point on, when I went to the movies, I listened as much as I watched. I remember hearing a certain tune in the movie Chicken Run and whistled it for weeks before getting my hands on the album to discover which cue it was (this was before YouTube).

Film composers are unfortunately the opposite of rock bands in that they are not in the habit of touring around and giving concerts. Chance would have it that I visited a concert by James Newton Howard last week, and he said that his introverted ass was happily composing away in a little recording studio for thirty years, till his producers kicked him around the world for a show. He had not been in the Netherlands for decades, so poor me for not hearing his music in person. Hans Zimmer is the Bon Jovi of the bunch and willing to tour around.

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So, Score: A Film Music Documentary, celebrates the power of music in film. It can make and break a film, a composer can elevate it, can subvert it, can almost dictate your feelings during a film. It is the film’s heart and soul. But the process behind it is rather obscure. Composers may have their own preferences, like watching the movie first without music and then playing around with sounds, or improvising until they hit on a part that fits the movie.

The documentary shows how much a film composer is still part of a team. The director of course has the final say on how the music is used, but the composer assists in the storytelling part. Directors don’t know how to translate emotions and intent to music and so the composer has to dig for those intentions inside the brain of the director – almost like a therapist.

It’s great to see all these composers talking in front of a camera, because I’ve been familiar with them for many years but I never had a real person to connect to the name. Writer and director Matt Schrader managed to interview many well-known composers, and not just the usual suspects like Hans Zimmer but also David Arnold, Marco Beltrami, John Debney and more, and he gives a good overview of how film music developed through the decades.

This is an excellently produced and shot documentary. Many important people of the field give interviews and explain what they love about their job. Very touching. I envy them, to be able to create such artistic, beautiful work and have your working life revolve around it. It’s interesting how many of these composers do not stick to Romantic era music but actually collect all sorts of instruments to try to find the rights sounds.

This documentary reinforced for me again why I love movies, and why I love film music.

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