One Thing I Love About Hamilton

We’ve been hearing such effusive praise about Hamilton for so long that I’m not surprised by how much I enjoyed it. But I am surprised that the ending had me ugly-crying.

The title photo is of the Great Gasp ride visible over the entrance to Six Flags Over Georgia.

For years, I’ve been hearing about how Hamilton is a masterpiece of musical theater. I’ve never had the patience or money to get tickets for a live performance, so I’ve just had to listen to the soundtrack and take everybody else’s word for it. I thought the music was good but nothing exceptional enough to warrant such universal praise, so I figured that there must be something spectacular in the live production — maybe Hamilton dodges a falling chandelier like Phantom of the Opera, or the founding fathers form a roller-skating train like Starlight Express.

Like much of the rest of the country, I finally got to see the filmed version on Disney+, and I think now I finally understand what all the fuss is about. In my opinion, the brilliance of the show isn’t dependent on any big moment of spectacle — to be honest, I had it running in the background and was only halfway paying attention as I was doing something else, so I completely missed the time-rewinding during Angelica Schuyler’s song, and I only heard afterwards that it was one of the most breathtaking moments of the play. And even only giving it half my attention, I still loved it, so I’m expecting to love it even more when I finally get to watch it without distraction.

The brilliance of the show is that it’s two and a half hours showcasing one standout performance after another, and it’s all a celebration of intelligence, wit, diversity, integrity, ambition, and the American ideal. It’s hard to describe how nice it was on July 3, 2020 to be seeing a bunch of phenomenally talented people all getting together to celebrate intelligence and integrity and diversity. Even if it was a relic of the Obama administration.

Part of the reason it feels so relentlessly intelligent is because it’s packed with meaning — on top of all the wordplay itself, there are layers upon layers of things that the play is saying implicitly. One of the unexpected advantages to first seeing after everyone else in the world has spent five years obsessing over it: the internet is full of interpretations and lists and even — ugh — “explainers” pointing out details that a first-time viewer probably missed. The speed at which characters rhyme indicates their mental state or their self-confidence, and even the way that they move across the stage suggests their character. It’s daunting to think that not only does the play have more words than most in sheer number, but that every single one feels meticulously planned and placed.

And even the casual viewer can pick up on the most obvious things that the play says implicitly rather than explicitly. The casting itself is brilliant. It’s relatively easy to see why a Puerto Rican from New York City would choose to empathize with and emphasize Hamilton’s immigrant status. It’s significant to cast a black man as Thomas Jefferson. It’s significant to cast women of different races as the Schuyler sisters. It’s significant to show how women’s roles were prominent in Hamilton’s story, especially since our most popular stories about the founding of the USA usually act like women didn’t even exist apart from Betsy Ross, or an occasional nod to Dolly Madison.

I admit that when I first heard about the play, I thought that the casting was a good move, but effectively little more than a stunt, like gender-swapping roles in a well-known story, or setting Shakespeare in a different time period. But after seeing Hamilton, I realize I was completely wrong. It’s not the fiction of theater to show a diverse group of people active in the formation of the country; the fiction has been the centuries-long lie telling us that only white men were making a difference. I already knew that lines like “Immigrants, we get the job done” got applause in the play, but I feel like the stronger statement is made as soon as the actors walk on stage. It asserts that the history of America belongs to every American on that stage. Not just the white men who’ve traditionally dominated the story.

(If I were ever to write a “One Thing I Love About All Narrative Art,” it would be when an artist is able to use the format of the storytelling to deliver more of the story than is told explicitly. When changes in voice or pacing suggest greater narrative changes, or when assumptions made by the audience are subverted to make them nervous or uneasy. I love that stuff, and it gets my highest respect when I find it in any work, from Psycho to The Hunger Games novel).

So I love all those aspects of the play, but that’s not the “one thing” I’m focusing on here. All of the wit, and intelligence, and knowledge of the history of the nation and the history of theater, and multiple layers of meaning, would all make for a great thesis and likely a very entertaining play. What pushed Hamilton from “excellent” to “sublime” for me is the ending. I’d already been weepy for most of the last act of the play, with its concentration on death and the legacy we leave to others, but the last moment had me ugly-crying. It took me completely by surprise.

I didn’t expect to be surprised by Hamilton, any more than I was surprised by Titanic. Even people like me, who can never remember history classes, can remember the “Got Milk?” commercial. And even if you don’t have that context, Aaron Burr gives away the ending in the opening number, and the play foreshadows the duel twice. The final songs do recount what’s known about the characters from the historical record, but they’re not about that so much as about the play itself, and the reason it exists. (Which is why criticizing the play for historical “inaccuracies” misses the point entirely). It is explicitly about stories, how they’re told, and why they’re told. Stories about the “founding fathers” are deliberately made semi-mythical and removed from everyday life, to encourage patriotism and loyalty to the Constitution: the battles fought and the words written by these brave and god-like men must never be sullied or diminished by your shallow, modern concerns.

But Hamilton is encouraging a different kind of patriotism. It humanizes these historical figures, not for their benefit, but for ours. It says that these stories are our stories; they belong to every one of us as Americans. A lot of mostly white people have spent many, many years trying to spin history to suggest that a decidedly anti-monarchist revolution brought about its own type of monarchy. Through battles or writing, they earned a kind of divine right, and were gracious enough to allow everyone else — women and people of color, purely coincidentally — to enjoy the bounty of the country that they created. Hamilton asserts that these people aren’t so different from any of us, and we have the right — and responsibility — to choose our own fate just as much as they do.

And again, that would’ve made for a perfectly moving and satisfying ending to the musical, earning the kind of blurb that Disney+ uses (and which I genuinely love), “the story of America then, told by America now.” But then Eliza, who’s outlived everyone by decades, and who’s told all of their stories, and who’s made so many contributions of her own, finally reaches the end of her story, and her very last moment is to look to heaven, and gasp.

I’ve heard from family members about what they saw or heard during their loved ones’ final moments. I’ll never forget it; it brought a kind of hope and comfort and wonder to something that could otherwise be fearful or sad. The moment in Hamilton is ambiguous, but I read it as rapture — a person unprepared to suddenly be met with so much indescribable beauty. Again: cue the ugly crying.

I found out from a Wired interview with the cast, of all places, that the gasp is not even in the original play. That stunned me, because it seemed the key to the final act if not the entire play. The end of the play is largely about death, loss, grief, and running out of time. They’re ideas well-communicated, but also communicated in a surprisingly traditional way, for a musical that fearlessly combines so many different musical styles and clever wordplay. The song “Quiet Uptown” repeats “have pity” on the characters who are going through “unimaginable” grief, which are both distancing. They suggest sympathy instead of empathy.

But that final gasp shows shocking empathy. It’s humanizing to show that the figures credited with founding America all had their own failings and their own personal tragedies. But while we may not ever fight in a war, or get in a duel, or be betrayed, or lose a child, there’s one thing that every single one of us will go through; the ultimate thing that makes all of us human. After seeing the other characters spending their lives obsessing over their legacy and their places in history, Eliza’s final song transcends all of that. Her proudest achievement isn’t her “place in the narrative,” or a monument, but her work to help people. It has little to do with “history,” and everything to do with how we live in the present. What’s great about that moment is that you can interpret it however you want. My interpretation is that she’s rewarded, not for her role in Alexander Hamilton’s story, but for her own life well-lived.

One Thing I Already Love About Rise of the Resistance

I have opinions about a ride I haven’t even been on yet.

To keep my Star Wars streak alive, I’m going to write about a new attraction in Galaxy’s Edge that I haven’t even been to yet. The Rise of the Resistance ride/attraction opened in Walt Disney World at the beginning of December, and it’s scheduled to open in Disneyland in mid-January 2020.

I’ve been seeing and hearing about this ride for years, getting the slow drip of information that Disney’s been releasing to keep everybody hyped for a time when their friends would arrive to find the new land fully operational. But I pledged to keep my knowledge to a high-level overview, so I’d have an idea of the overall beats but would remain unspoiled for all the details.

That pledge lasted for about 30 seconds once I learned that ride-through videos were available on YouTube. The first video made my soul ache. All I could do was lay my head on my desk and moan that I wouldn’t be able to ride it right now. At this point, I admit I might have overdone it. I caught myself at the end of a ride-through video, mouthing along with the characters’ final dialogue, like I do in the Haunted Mansion. (Silently, because I’m not a monster).

I’ve no doubt that seeing it in person will have an impact that videos can’t fully convey, but it’d still be good to keep myself from getting over-familiar. This post does have spoilers for Rise of the Resistance, so please don’t read it if you want to remain completely surprised.

From what I’ve seen, Rise of the Resistance is kind of “Imagineering’s Greatest Hits.” It looks as if they’ve taken some of the best gags, effects, storytelling techniques, and ride vehicle systems from all of their most successful attractions, then compiled them all to tell a new-sequel Star Wars story. My favorite thing I’ve seen is an example of that.

In the Tower of Terror ride — both the Walt Disney World original and the version that was in California Adventure — they do a masterful job of building anticipation for when the drop is about to happen. The original is still my favorite (and still one of my favorite things that Disney’s ever done), because it has that extended sequence of moving out into darkness, then seeing the star field converge into a point that becomes opening elevator doors.

But both versions have a gag where you see a window at the end of a corridor, and then the window shatters and drops. No matter how many times you ride, it gets a gut reaction, as you’re positive that the drop is going to happen right then.

At the end of Rise of the Resistance, your vehicle moves into an escape pod, and you can see other escape pods suspended beneath the Star Destroyer. Across the way, one of the claws holding the pods opens, and you see the pod suddenly drop away from the ship and fall towards the planet. And then, you’re left hanging for a few seconds, waiting for the drop that is about to come….

I love it because it proves that Imagineering didn’t just make a great ride with Tower of Terror, but that they understood exactly why it stood out from being just another drop ride. I think Disney is prone to overstate the role of “story” in their attractions in public-facing material, but the Tower of Terror rides are proof of how much of what defines a great Disney ride comes down not to ride technology but to techniques of storytelling. Place-setting, sound effects, music, pacing, and anticipation.

Seeing all the ride technology working in conjunction in Rise of the Resistance has my super-hyped for it as a theme park ride. Seeing one of my favorite moments in Tower of Terror echoed in the new attraction has me hyped for it as a new Disney experience. I’ve heard several people call the ride “next level” or describe it as the start of a new age of Disney attractions. I’m glad to see that it wasn’t just a case of adopting a new ride system (all our rides are variations on Soarin’ Over California now!), but that it’s a synthesis of all the things they’ve been excelling at for decades.

One Thing I Love About Knives Out

Knives Out is a movie that constantly wants to have it both ways, and it somehow pulls it off flawlessly. (Spoilers within)

There’s a lot of things I love about Knives Out: its clever structure, its cast full of perfect performances, its ability to perfectly nail the tone throughout, its unapologetic assertion of morality. I thought it was very near flawless, and it was a great reminder of how exhilarating it can be to see a movie that wasn’t part of a blockbuster franchise.

But one of the best things is that it kept me surprised throughout, so I’d consider anything outside of the trailers to be a spoiler for the movie. Please don’t read this (or any other reviews for that matter) until after you’ve seen Knives Out.

The one aspect of Knives Out that I’m going to focus on is the way that it wants to have it all both ways, and it somehow manages to pull it off. Based on the trailer, I thought I knew exactly what kind of movie it was going to be, and I was completely on board.

As it turned out, it was that kind of movie, but it also kept surprising me by changing direction. It’s very funny, but without sacrificing its tension or its emotion. The set direction and the opening shot suggest an old-fashioned period 1970s period piece set in a gothic mansion, but a lot of its tension comes from cell phones and topical references. Many of its characterizations are campy and almost over the top, but it also generates real empathy with the characters. It looks like a locked-room whodunnit, but it also has a car chase (even if it’s “the stupidest car chase”).

And one of the most clever and surprising aspects to me: it wants to be both a traditional whodunnit and a Columbo-style whodunnit that reveals the murderer near the beginning of the story. And they both work!

I would’ve assumed that the two types of story were mutually exclusive. There was a pretty great thriller (at least, great in my memory of 1987) called No Way Out that got its tension from having its protagonist trying to manipulate an investigation that would inevitably reveal him to be the murderer. Knives Out weaves that story in and out of a traditional murder mystery, and it’s fascinating to go back and look at how it manages to pull that off.

The beginning of the movie is brilliantly constructed. It has to set up the plot, introduce the characters, establish the tone as funny-but-not-flippant, establish the characters as extreme but not just caricatures, and put the audience in the role of observers who are given more information than any of the characters and will have to piece it all together. All while keeping things moving and preventing the audience from feeling overwhelmed.

The first clever twist is that the audience is set up not to identify with the eccentric detective, but with one of the least likely suspects. The second is the brilliant gimmick of having a protagonist who’s physically incapable of lying.

As a result, it takes a genre that relies on impassive detachment — you assume that everyone’s lying and treat the characters as pieces of a puzzle that the storyteller has laid out in front of you — and turns it into one in which you become personally invested in the main character and the murder victim. Meanwhile, the movie and the characters themselves are all self-aware to know that they’re in a whodunnit, so the analytical part of your brain can keep spinning, putting the clues together and trying to predict what comes next.

By the end of the movie, I realized that while I’d been patting myself on the back for being so clever at several points in the movie, it was at least a step ahead of me, planting red herrings. Not for the mystery so much as the structure of the movie itself. Throughout, I had figured out only as much as the movie wanted me to figure out. I was able to predict just far enough ahead so that I was in sync in the story as all the pieces fell into place.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the special features, commentary, and deleted scenes for this movie, because I’d love to see how it was constructed and I wonder if there were more that was cut out. For instance, one of my minor complaints about it was that Riki Lindhome’s character felt like she was going to play a larger role that never really developed. Similarly, LaKeith Stanfield’s character had some great moments but felt underdeveloped even as an Inspector Lastrade stand-in; was there more at one point, or was this another misdirection?

Regardless, I’m a lot less interested in seeing Rian Johnson do a trilogy of Star Wars movies, and a lot more interested in seeing more of the ongoing Benoit Blanc series. The Maybe B. Blanc Mysteries? As much as I said this was a great self-contained film and a nice break from franchise-driven blockbusters, I can’t help wanting to see more of this from Daniel Craig and Rian Johnson instead of 007 and Star Wars. It has it both ways in so many other respects, so why can’t it be both an independent film and a franchise?

One Thing I Don’t Like About Rogue One

Remembering the brilliant production design of Rogue One means being reminded of all of its story problems and what almost feels like a smear campaign against its own protagonist.

This post has spoilers for Rogue One.

I don’t want to make a habit of this, because half of the premise behind “One Thing I Like” posts was to spend more time praising things I love instead of criticizing things I don’t. But recently I was reminded of just how brilliant Rogue One‘s production design is — possibly the best of the entire Star Wars series — and I started to write a post praising it.

When I began re-watching the movie for the first time since 2016, I didn’t even make it past the first scene before I was reminded of how much the story annoys me.

Rogue One opens with a flashback to our protagonist as a child, spotting Imperial ships arriving in the distance. She desperately runs back to her family farm to warn her parents. She breathlessly reaches the door and runs inside… only to be immediately shut down by her mother, who says “We know.” This movie refuses to let its protagonist have even a single moment’s worth of agency in her own life’s story.

The whole Star Wars franchise is built on a story about a guy whose dad was famous, so the problem isn’t that Jyn Erso’s story is driven by her father’s work on the Death Star. The problem is that her father works on the Death Star, decides to betray the Empire by sabotaging it with a hidden weakness, leaves a message for Jyn telling her what the weakness is and how to exploit it and even how to find the plans, and then tells her in person that she has to get the plans. She’s a character who’s robbed of any personality and not allowed to have any story arc.

The only thing she does of her own volition is in a scene that shouldn’t even exist. The movie presents the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars as a bunch of bickering politicians who, when presented with a way to defeat a weapon that could destroy entire planets, choose instead to just give up. And Jyn’s one attempt at heroics is to deliver a couple of lines with vapid observations about having hope. And she still fails.

I understand that it’s ridiculously complicated to navigate the too-many-cooks nature of Hollywood blockbusters and deliver something that feels like an organic story, and that’s even without billions of dollars and tons of stakeholders involved. And I know Rogue One in particular is notorious for having been extensively re-written and re-shot. It’s easy to play armchair screenwriter and pick apart a movie without being aware of all the parts that were in motion that led to certain decisions.

But that would be an excuse for my other problems with the Rogue One story. Like how it’s bafflingly, stupefyingly off tone in the final act. When I heard the premise of the movie — a bunch of Rebel spies getting the plans for the Death Star — I was imagining a cool James Bond or Mission: Impossible style spy movie set in the Star Wars universe.

Instead, they decided to make a movie that’s literally about a bunch of people stumbling across a beach to get an eight-track tape from one place to another. There are space battles raging overhead, and the movie expects us to thrill as our main characters retrieve a file from a database! Elsewhere, a man bravely struggles to untangle a cord!

But really, fine. I may disagree completely, but I can at least understand someone wanting to make a WWII- or Vietnam-style rag-tag-band-of-misfits war story instead of a spy story. It feels harder to give a pass to what feels like the movie wanting to be about literally any other character than its dumb old girl protagonist.

It feels like when a bunch of boys would start playing with their Star Wars toys and resent having to include the Princess Leia figure, so they just made a token gesture of including her in all the scenes with their rad new Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen figures, until they can get to the last part where Darth Vader totally flips out and slices up a bunch of dudes like a total bad-ass. Or as if the last draft of the script were vetted by the men on the internet throwing tantrums over the character of Rose Tico in The Last Jedi. Or Neil LaBute.

Why does the character of Galen Erso formulate and deliver the entire plan from start to finish, leaving Jyn nothing to decide or figure out? Why couldn’t he have been just a bad guy, and Jyn chooses to exploit her knowledge of his work to find the weakness that saves the Rebellion? If they’re dead set on keeping him a good guy, why couldn’t they have kept his reveal hidden until the last act, so Jyn’s forced to try and help rescue him while believing he was evil and betrayed her and her mother?

Why does the character of Cassian Andor even exist? I get that they’re trying (for some reason) to introduce some kind of moral ambiguity to the Rebellion, but there’s no real conflict between him and Jyn apart from the stupid “you tried to kill my dad!” It just seems as if the filmmakers couldn’t trust Jyn to lead the mission by herself.

There’s even a moment where the Rebels have to fake their ship’s call sign to the Imperials, which gives the movie its title. And they don’t even let her do that much; she just glares at the pilot until he does it. They gave it to the one character who should’ve been a macguffin who was instantly forgotten.

Rogue One‘s script is a mess. But the movie made a ton of money and has Darth Vader flipping out and slicing up a bunch of dudes, so nobody complains about anything except for the uncanny valley that Tarkin and Leia fell into. I think what frustrates me so much about it is that the rest of the movie looks so good, and it just nails the look and feel of 1977 Star Wars silently and seemingly effortlessly.

As fantastic as Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are, there are still definitely props and effects shots that feel like they were the best the filmmakers could do with the available tech and budget. The prequels and special editions all feel like a billionaire’s over-reaction to those limitations. Things don’t look better, necessarily, just busier, shinier, heavily green-screened, and computer-generated.

What’s so great about the production design of Rogue One is that it went all-in on the aesthetic of 1977 with the technology of 2015. Somehow, even more than the new trilogy, they nailed the look of all the weapons, goggles, control terminals, and displays. It makes it feel like a true expansion of the original movies. Almost nothing in the prequels ever felt solid or substantial; characters always felt as if they were floating inside a computer, like the full-motion video sequences from early CD-ROM games. The look of Rogue One actually seemed like there was a real galaxy of fantastic stuff just outside of frame in the original movies.

I’ve only seen the first two episodes of The Mandalorian, so it’s probably too early to declare it the savior of the Star Wars universe. But things were looking pretty dire for a while there. You could get the look right or the tone right, but not both at the same time, and not both in something not intended for children. Now maybe things are looking up, and we can see more of this galaxy explored, new stories, new locations, and maybe even women can do things too.

One Thing I Love About The Mandalorian

The first Star Wars live-action TV series gets so much right that it’d be a shame not to notice its amazing soundtrack.

It feels like I’ve been looking forward to a live-action Star Wars TV series for decades now. Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated Clone Wars series is one of the most original and brilliant things ever to come out of the Star Wars license, but it was deliberately small in scope I’ve heard good things about the animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels, but both are hamstrung by some insistence that animation is for kids. I believe people when they say that The Clone Wars series got really good, but I also have to point out that early episodes still had Jar-Jar.

There’s so much potential for smaller, more deliberately-paced stories in the Star Wars universe, it could be surprising that it’s taken so long for anyone to make a non-juvenile take. After seeing the first two episodes of The Mandalorian, though, I no longer find it that surprising. It seems like every detail and choice in tone demonstrates how badly this could have gone wrong.

The overall tone is like a 1970s Western — or rather, our memory of what they were like, since the reality is that they were painfully slow-paced and dull to 21st century audiences. It’s as if the makers of Wild Wild West had chosen to do a sci-fi sequel, inspired by A Fistful of Dollars. And instead of presenting it as a theme or re-skinning, like Firefly‘s HEY LOOK WE’RE MAKING A SCI-FI WESTERN approach, I think The Mandalorian does it a lot more subtly and “holistically.” It uses storytelling techniques from 1970s Westerns — like montages, long sequences without dialogue, and even end credit sequences over still frames of painted concept art — that make its setting and tone seem an integral part of the story, instead of just a clever pastiche.

That includes the series soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson, which is one thing I love about The Mandalorian (that I’m choosing to write about). This is a work that acknowledges how crucial music is to the Star Wars experience but doesn’t just mimic John Williams’s soundtracks. It also doesn’t fall into the second most obvious trap, which would have been to mimic Ennio Morricone or any of the other iconic western movie and TV soundtracks. The music never seems to be trying to capture a style, but trying to capture a feeling or a concept.

Because so much of The Mandalorian‘s second episode happens without dialogue, it allows the music to come to the forefront. And while the soundtrack doesn’t borrow themes directly from the Star Wars movies, it does use a lot of the same ideas. At least, it seems that way to those of us whose knowledge of classical music is limited almost entirely to John Williams’s soundtracks. The Mandalorian doesn’t have an opening theme song, but in the second episode, the leitmotif for the character of The Mandalorian starts to become more recognizable as a replacement for the main theme. That reliance on characters’ having their own recognizable themes is an integral part of what makes a Star Wars soundtrack.

Throughout the episode, the action sequences are scored with heavily percussive, almost chaotic sounds. It sounds alien, first off, asserting that this isn’t just a conventional Western. But it’s also evocative of the music in Star Wars as the Tusken Raiders attack Luke Skywalker, without being a direct imitation. Even more than that, though, was how much it reminded me of the music in The Planet of the Apes. None of it feels to me like a direct reference, but is instead part of the overall tone and setting of the series, planting it solidly in the realm of late 1970s science fiction.

The music is one perfectly-realized detail of many in the series. And all of the details are working in tandem to make it feel as if it were an inextricable part of the Star Wars universe that’s been sitting in a Lucasfilm vault since 1979. (Even though the seamless effects work and puppetry would make this series impossible before around 2010).

Göransson himself seems like the kind of musician who could only exist in the 21st century, though. His entire career and body of work are super-exciting to me, because it suggests a media environment where genres are irrelevant, and it’s all a huge cross-cultural mash-up. If you haven’t listened to the episode of the Song Exploder podcast in which he talks about recording the soundtrack to Black Panther, you absolutely should.

Una cosa que me encanta de Los Espookys

Los Espookys on HBO is weird and brilliant and I already miss it, even though it’s not over yet

Los Espookys is a comedy series on HBO about a group of four weird friends in some unspecified Latin American country, who stage real-life horror scenes for their various weird clients. Even if you don’t have HBO, you can watch the first episode on YouTube.

I’ve read a bunch of articles and reviews trying to explain why the show’s so surprisingly fun and charming, but I don’t think any of them really nail it. And neither will this blog post, because it’s practical inexplicable. It’s the best weird concept for a comedy I’ve seen since The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt, and it’s probably the surprisingly funniest series I’ve seen since 30 Rock, and it’s somehow more impressive than both because it plays simultaneously to both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences. Which leads into the thing I’m picking as One Thing I Like About Los Espookys:

There’s a scene in the third episode where Andrés’s (Jose Torres) handsome but awful boyfriend asks “will you marry me?” and Andrés responds with a hilariously perfect expression that he later describes as “I said maybe with my eyes.” It’s great first of all because it’s perfect for Andrés’s character. He has a perpetual expression that’s a combination of being haunted by his dark mysterious past and annoyed to the point of he can’t even.

Even more than that, though, it’s a moment that’s hilarious but that doesn’t depend on language. Very little of the comedy in Los Espookys is wordplay or referential humor, since everything has to work for people relying on the subtitles as well as people who understand Spanish. Still, the dialogue is often hilarious, but more from stringing absurd ideas together. There isn’t a lot of slapstick, either, although there is some — like the best comedies, Los Espookys is constantly jumping across the lines between cerebral and silly. Because it’s not dependent on being “too Spanish” or “too American,” the humor is more universal.

I read an interview with Torres in which he downplays concerns about trying to sell a show predominantly in Spanish to an American audience, simply by pointing out that he grew up in El Salvador watching American programming with Spanish subtitles, and he handled it fine. That sensibility seems to drive everything about the series: it doesn’t feel the need to sacrifice any of its voice (literally or figuratively) to cater to an English-speaking audience, or in fact any kind of “mainstream” audience.

It doesn’t assume American by default; it’s conceived by people who grew up in Latin American cultures, and it’s adamantly about aspects of that culture — B-movie horror, ever-present Catholicism, copyright-infringing knock-off chocolate companies (a detail that I’d never heard of before but Torres asserts is common) — but is in no way an “intro to Latin America.” It really doesn’t feel as if it’s made for either audience; it’s universal. Or at least universal among people who like weird humor, and who pick up shared references to exorcisms, alien abductions, inheritance scares, and that thing where someone is sucked into a bed and falls through the ceiling to land on the bed again.

I also like that scene because it’s a gay marriage proposal in a universe where nobody treats being gay as all that exceptional. So far it seems like two of the main characters are queer and one seems to be asexual, but it’s just an aspect of their character and not any kind of plot point. In fact, there’s a moment when Andrés’s boyfriend tells him “good luck finding another gay guy,” and it seemed jarring, because until then no one had even seemed to acknowledge that they were a gay couple.

There’s just a sense of confidence and fearlessness throughout Los Espookys that makes it seem like true 21st century multicultural comedy with its own unique voice. And it refuses to do anything that would compromise that voice. It doesn’t tell you that it’s some kind of cultural bridge between English- and Spanish-speaking audiences, it doesn’t over-explain its gags, it doesn’t try to justify its weirdness. It just feels like a smart, goofy show that only tries to be funny; all of its multicultural and multilingual significance is something it says with its eyes.

One Thing I Love About Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run

The new Millennium Falcon ride at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland reminded me a lot of the source of all dark side evil on Dagobah, but in a good way.

There’s a scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Yoda’s daring Luke to go into this dark side cave they found, and Luke asks what’s inside the cave, and Yoda says “only what you take with you.” That came to mind when I was trying to think of how to concisely sum up the new Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland: at least at this stage, you get out of it what you put into it.

I mean, not literally. Thousands of people have spent countless hours and countless dollars to build this place and make it perfect, twice. It’s not as if Disney just puts you in a black room and tells you to think about Star Wars. But more than any other Disney experience I’ve had (even including Disney Quest!), Galaxy’s Edge felt less like being passively entertained and more as if it depended on my participation.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the whole thing. Considering what an emotional attachment I have to Star Wars, and especially after watching YouTube videos of fans losing their composure at the sight of the park (which I genuinely love), I expected that I’d be having some kind of breakdown as soon as I caught sight of an A-Wing or the full-size Millennium Falcon. Once I saw it in person, though, I was too removed from it to be overwhelmed.

Part of that was because of the crowds — although Disney did a remarkable job at crowd control, we were still in a pack of at least a thousand other Star Wars fans being shuffled from one line to another. Part of it was because I’d been watching so many videos that there was little left to surprise me. And part of it was the disappointment at having made a reservation to get in the land but still being turned away from the Cantina and the light saber experience. But I also believe it was intentional in the design; it’s more interested in creating a sense of place than a sensory overload.

Galaxy’s Edge seems to be an extension of a design philosophy that’s been prevalent in Disney parks for the last couple of decades — from Animal Kingdom, to areas like the New York Waterfront in Tokyo DisneySea, to Cars Land at California Adventure. The idea focuses on making a fictional place that feels real, instead of a collection of a bunch of themed elements. One of the best examples is comparing the China pavilion at Epcot’s World Showcase to the Asia section of Animal Kingdom. The former takes a bunch of architectural, cultural, and conceptual highlights from all around China and combines them into one place, to act as a kind of fantastic tour of the country. The latter goes all in on creating a fictional kingdom of Anandapur, located somewhere near Nepal or Tibet, trying to act like a highly detailed functional city that can serve as a kind of representative sample for a large section of Asia.

I’ve loved the Animal Kingdom approach for years, but it wasn’t until I saw it applied to Star Wars that I really appreciated a side effect of it: it sacrifices spectacle in favor of immersion. There are still bits of spectacle, of course: Anandapur has a beautiful camera spot set up with an altar to the Forbidden Mountain in the foreground and the mountain itself in the distance across a lake; and Galaxy’s Edge is designed so that multiple entry points all yield a gradual, cinematic reveal of the Millennium Falcon. But most of the lands are deliberately designed to look as if they haven’t been deliberately designed. You’re made to feel less like a visitor to a theme park and more like a street photographer; you’re not being explicitly shown what to look at, but pulling interesting details out of the environment.

(Which works especially well with Star Wars, since one of the most interesting aspects of Star Wars is how creatures and technology that are fantastic to the audience are seen as familiar or even ancient to the characters. The centerpiece of the land and its most obvious photo opportunity is something that multiple characters think of as “what a piece of junk.” So Batuu and the Black Spire Outpost can seem exotic to visitors but no big deal to the locals).

All of that background is relevant to Smuggler’s Run because it explains how the ride isn’t just an updated version of Star Tours. In that ride, you’re a passenger who’s riding along with someone else’s adventure. I think that never would’ve worked with Smuggler’s Run because getting into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon is all about wish fulfillment. It would’ve felt like a catastrophically missed opportunity to be in the ship and be forced to just watch passively.

And the interactivity isn’t like that of Men In Black or Buzz Lightyear or Toy Story Midway Mania, or any interactive ride I’ve seen before. In fact, it reminds me most of the Pirates of the Caribbean experience at Disney Quest. It’s cooperative instead of competitive, so your “score” is based on how well you work with the rest of the people on the ride with you. Which is the one thing I like the most about Smuggler’s Run.

A couple of friends posted an article by Robert Niles in the San Jose Mercury News giving his take on how the ride encourages cooperation. And while it was likely well-intentioned, it made me fear the worst. In particular, it made me fear getting stuck on the ride with someone like the writer, who took it upon himself to debrief his crew on how to correctly experience the ride, and whose key takeaway from the experience was how it was important to take control to guarantee the most successful outcome of the mission. Which made him sound completely insufferable.

I already dislike being forced to engage with strangers. I think that theme park designers frequently assume that guests are all going to be as extroverted as they are, so they design experiences that demand a certain level of audience participation. That’s bad enough, and when you add a layer of gameplay on top of that, it gets worse. Anybody who’s played enough cooperative board games, or gone through escape rooms, has encountered the type of person who appoints himself quarterback, telling everyone else how to “best” play the game. Niles’s article made it sound as if he were doing exactly that. It’s either spoiling the surprises of the ride for people who haven’t ridden before, or presuming to tell them that he understands the ride better than they do, and that what he wants out of it should be the same thing that they do. What’s the harm in “laughing as the whole thing comes crashing down?” That’s pretty much the entire premise of Star Tours, which has been beloved for decades. Suddenly I was anxious about getting stuck with someone who decided to tell me what to do, and my having to tell him to stay in his own lane and let me enjoy my damn vacation how I wanted to.

What actually happened, though, was the kind of “magical” interaction with strangers that is rare for those of us who are introverts. For our first ride, we were put into a group with four people who’d ridden before. I was assigned the engineer position, and I was a little disappointed because I’d already read reports that the pilot was by far the best experience on the ride, if not the only one worth doing at all. But as soon as they heard it was our first time on the ride, the other people on the ride offered to let us be the pilots, both so we could see it and so that they could try all the different positions. Once we got on board, they were cheering us on as pilots, clapping whenever the group accomplished something, gasping at stuff we hadn’t seen before, and generally making the whole ride feel like a big cooperative adventure.

We got to ride two more times that night. Each time felt as if the group energy brought as much to the ride as any of the visual effects. The second time was with a pretty quiet group of strangers (I believe they weren’t native English speakers), and I thought the experience was neat but unremarkable. The last time was with a couple of guys who’d been trying to ride with all the different roles, and we’d chatted a little bit in the waiting area while I was trying to get a picture at the chess table, and the ride felt more communal and fun.

Granted, this was during a period in which most everyone was seeing the land and the ride for the first time, and we’d all had to make reservations in advance, so it was a group of people predisposed to love everything Star Wars more than a representative sample of the public. Also, the reservation system meant that waits for the ride were rarely over 20 minutes, so we could ride multiple times and didn’t have too much investment in it. Maybe the dynamic will change once the flood gates open and people aren’t able to ride without a long wait, and then change once again after everyone has become familiar with the ride. (No doubt there will eventually be “min-maxers” who’ll be happy to coach you on how best to perform each role).

But for now at least, it’s a ride that takes one of my least favorite things — being forced to talk to strangers — and makes a magical, communal experience out of it. I hope to never be one of those people who tells people the “right” way to experience the ride, but I do know that the only “wrong” way is to expect it to be a sit-back, passive experience like Star Tours. In fact, I think the ride’s tendency to pull you away from facing forward and interact with buttons to your left and right isn’t a design flaw, but actually an element that encourages that kind of immersion. You can’t just sit back and watch. And that’s fine, because the point of the ride isn’t what’s on the screen, but what’s happening in your group.

One Thing I Love About “Stories of Your Life and Others”

I think Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is a work of genius that dispels my assumptions about science fiction vs science fantasy

From the movie Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life”, and also a billion memes

Whenever I meet another person who’s significantly smarter than I am, my brain immediately and involuntarily starts doing this thing where it starts looking for deficits. “Okay, sure, she may understand linear algebra in a way that I’ve never been able to, but I’d be able to understand it too, if I hadn’t devoted so time to developing a sense of humor to be a more well-rounded person.”

It’s complete bullshit, of course. And it should go without saying that it never actually works, because I don’t live in an 80s teen movie where people have one defining trait. And almost every time I’ve met someone frustratingly smarter than I am, they’ve also turned out to be creative, imaginative, and often funny. (And occasionally, infuriatingly, really good-looking as well).

It was a familiar feeling reading Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, a collection of short stories seemingly written by someone better than me at understanding linguistics, semiotics, and what it fundamentally means to be human.

Usually my attempts to read science fiction end in failure, even though it’s always seemed like I should be a fan. I think I bounce off “real” sci-fi for the same reason I didn’t enjoy taking astronomy in college: the amazing things that we’ve learned about the cosmos aren’t the result of seat-of-your-pants jaunts on a faster-than-light spaceship navigating through asteroid fields, but from centuries of earthbound study. On a purely intellectual level, I can appreciate the spectacular amount of work and brilliant insight that goes into just gathering images from outer space, but still I was disappointed that astronomy classes turned out to be 1% cool pictures of nebulae and 99% geology and physics. Science fantasy is flashier and more fun than science fiction, and both are orders of magnitude more fun than actual science.

It’s appropriate that immediately before this book, I read Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke for the first time. That’s long had a reputation as being a classic of “hard” science fiction, and for good reason: its drama comes almost entirely from insurmountable limitations of physics (along with some conjecture about interplanetary politics) instead of human interaction. Its characters speak in dry monologues, the attempts at humor are almost unforgivably corny, and there’s an air of just-give-her-a-smack-on-the-ass sexism that pervades the whole thing, although to me at least, it comes across as more musty and dated than genuinely misogynist. The only real personality in the book is that Clarke comes across as way into polygamy.

The preface to the edition of Rendezvous with Rama that I read acknowledges the weakness of character development, but gives it a pass because the book isn’t “about” that. It’s a stereotype about science fiction that I’ve long just accepted as true: a story can either have scientific rigor or good character development, but never both, because they’re inherently mutually exclusive.

The aspect I love the most about Stories of Your Life and Others is that it completely refutes that idea. It takes concepts from science fantasy (and high fantasy), tells them with the rigor of science fiction, and uses them to explore some of the same ideas as contemporary literary fiction. Most of the stories in this book are deeply, profoundly human.

And they don’t use the crutch of direct allegory to make their point — like using the story of an android to ask what makes us human, which can be well-told and effective, but is still processed intellectually. The stories in this book explore a fantastic premise in all its permutations, layering on idea after idea to leave the reader with less of a conclusion and more of a feeling. I didn’t understand “Division by Zero,” for instance, and I still don’t. Even (especially?) after reading Chiang’s afterword describing the impetus for the story, I don’t feel like I can understand the depth of its premise, or fully appreciate the implications of its premise. And still, it left me feeling shaken, in a way even more troubling because I couldn’t explain it. I had to put the book down and couldn’t go back to it for a couple of weeks.

That’s why I can’t say I loved the book, even though I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call it genius. I do think the stories at the end of this collection were well told but felt either a little predictable or a little too direct when compared to the others, but honestly only suffer when compared to the strength of the first few stories. But more than that, it took an emotional toll on me, as if I’d read seven complete novels in the time I’d intended to read one. I’d expected a short story collection to be a light read, but it was anything but. These short stories don’t feel like sketches, but like sucking on bullion cubes of densely-concentrated ideas.

I haven’t yet seen Arrival, but it’s such a beautiful idea that makes perfect sense for a movie translation. And I’ve already got Chiang’s latest collection, Exhalation, but I’m not eager to jump into it right away. One of the review blurbs calls it “relentless,” and there’s a story called “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” both of which make me think I need to take a break first and read something lighter. I can tolerate somebody being smarter than me, and I can tolerate somebody being more insightful than me, but pulling both at once just seems unfair.

Them (One Thing I Almost Didn’t Like About Get Out)

I finally worked up the nerve to watch Get Out, and I really liked it. It was a close call, apparently.

(I’m going to avoid spoilers until the second half of this post. It’s remarkable how I managed to go about two years without having this movie ruined for me, and I think it’s vastly improved by going in as ignorant as possible!)

It’s been about two years since Get Out was released, and over a year since I bought it for home streaming, but I’ve only just watched it this week, mostly to make sure I’ve seen it before Jordan Peele’s new movie Us.

I could make excuses, but the main reason I haven’t watched it is because I’ve been scared of it. I love thinking about and post-analyzing horror movies but rarely enjoy watching them, at least if they’re at all serious in tone. I’ve got extremely low tolerance for gore and depictions of torture, as well. If I’m being honest, there are parts of Key and Peele that were almost too uncomfortable for me to watch, so how bad would it be without the necessity to be funny, and without basic cable censors? I’ve asked several times online for a summation of how violent/gory/scary Get Out is, but I always got mixed answers (because it’s subjective). My take, for anyone else who’s been interested but scared to watch it:

  • It’s excellent and deserves all the praise it’s gotten
  • It’s only got one real jump scare
  • Gore is minimal
  • It’s very funny in places, but isn’t a horror comedy
  • The scariest moments are all psychological horror and tension

Since it’s been so long since it was released, it seems like every white person on the internet has already posted their opinions and analysis of it, several times over. I don’t have much new to say, but I can at least be another white person on the internet and give my personal take on it.

Inclusion: I’ve said before that I was late to the party on both Inside Amy Schumer and Key and Peele, because I wasn’t sure that either show was “for” me, as someone who isn’t a woman and isn’t black. As a white liberal NPR-listening American, though, I’m 100% sure that Get Out is “for” me. I’m not exclusively the target audience, obviously, but I’m unquestionably part of it, and that certainty is actually pretty nice for once.

Even if Peele hadn’t explicitly said as much, it’s clear that the movie is a reaction to those of us who wanted to believe that the Obama Administration was a milestone, and that America was making progress towards becoming a “post-racial” society, even if we had a long way to go. This movie seems not only to reject that idea completely, but to make us question whether “post-racial” is a noble goal at all. The idea is really only appealing to those of us whose identities wouldn’t be assimilated — when white people say “post-racial” what we’re assuming (usually unconsciously) is actually “everybody looks different but is still essentially like me.”

Representation: I’ve been looking forward to Us as well — or at least, having every intention of seeing it and then chickening out to watch Captain Marvel again instead — because I still like the idea of intelligent horror movies and because I think Lupita Nyong’o is amazing. When I read the Rotten Tomatoes synopsis:

Haunted by an unexplainable and unresolved trauma from her past and compounded by a string of eerie coincidences, Adelaide feels her paranoia elevate to high-alert as she grows increasingly certain that something bad is going to befall her family. […] Us pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.

I was embarrassed, because I realized there was no mention in the synopsis, or in any of the trailers, that the main characters were black. I’d just assumed that Peele’s next movie after Get Out would be another example of social movie commentary about race, and I didn’t consider that it might not have anything to do with the protagonists being black. Apart from being made by a filmmaker who’s loved watching movies all his life but rarely seen himself reflected in the characters.

I haven’t heard much about Us other than that it’s really good, and now I kind of don’t want it to be social commentary. I’d love to see an example in horror where the endearing American family isn’t white by default.

Empathy: As much as I want to understand all the issues that surround representation in the media, there’s always going to be a limit to how much I “get it” since I’ve very rarely been in a situation where I’m the only white person. Even trying to go the intersectional route and comparing it to growing up gay surrounded by media that 99.99% for and about straight people, it’s nowhere near a perfect comparison.

I can say that during those few times when I’ve been in a racial minority, there’s been this undercurrent of unease that I just can’t intellectualize away, no matter how hard I try. I haven’t ever felt threatened, just different. And every time I’ve thought, “this is just weird,” it’s been accompanied by the realization, “but temporary for me, while they have to feel like this almost all of the time, and wonder if they’re physically in danger on top of that.” It’s profoundly othering, in a time when I’m doing my best to by empathetic, and it’s perpetually frustrating and discouraging for anyone who believes in a future where we’ll all just be comfortable around each other. I want to be the type of person who just gets it, but I’m probably more the type of person who subconsciously keeps saying “my man.”

Which is an idea that Get Out handles so perfectly, it’s astounding. The movie presents the perfect visual representation of being simultaneously marginalized and exposed, which refers back to the image of watching people on TV who aren’t like you, with the addition of being powerless to stop it.

It’s a huge part of why the premise is so perfectly suited to a horror film, which leads to my favorite part of the movie, which is the final scene, which makes any discussion of it a huge spoiler.

SPOILERS FOR GET OUT

One Thing I Love About Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel shows what can happen when you stop making superhero movies and start making movies for an audience familiar with superheroes

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) Photo: Chuck Zlotnick ©Marvel Studios 2019

There’s a lot I loved about Captain Marvel, but if I had to pick one thing, it’d be how it culminates in a fight scene set to “Just a Girl” by No Doubt. It’s not my favorite scene in the movie, and I kind of agree with the criticism that it’s kind of corny and extremely on-the-nose. But it also felt to me like a perfect example of how everyone involved in the production just got it. It felt to me like a victory lap, not just for this movie, but for the entire decade-plus franchise of impossibly huge blockbusters.

To explain what I’m talking about, I have to take a step back and say that I disagree with most of the reviews I’ve seen of Captain Marvel. The consensus seems to be that this is a good but middling Marvel movie, which feels like a throwback to the first phase of origin story movies. And they say that Captain Marvel has a ton of potential, but that there’s little room for character development in this movie, and the story ends right as it’s getting interesting.

My response is to point out that Captain Marvel introduces multiple alien species; shape-shifters; a fight scene on a train through Los Angeles; chases in cars, jet fighters, and spaceships; a forgotten identity subplot; an investigation into a secret project buried deep inside a NASA base; an intergalactic war; and an adorable flerken.

It’s complicated, is my point, and weird in such a shamelessly nerdy, comic-book-saturated way that I still have a hard time believing that these are the biggest, most mainstream movies being made these days. This couldn’t have been released alongside the first wave of Marvel movies, since back then, people still believed that super-heroes were a tough sell for a mainstream audience. It wasn’t until Guardians of the Galaxy that the franchise got into sci-fi (and comedy, for that matter), but Captain Marvel tosses you right into the middle of a planet full of aliens in the first scene.

Over the years, I’ve tried several times to get up to speed on the whole sci-fi side of the Marvel universe. And even in comic book geek terms, Captain Marvel’s origin story is weird and confusing, with Krees and Skrulls and alien DNA fusion and multiple identities. I read and watched multiple “explain the history of Captain Marvel” articles and videos in preparation for the movie, and I never felt like I got it. Try explaining Carol Danvers’s back story in an environment where filmmakers still believe you have to show Bruce Wayne’s parents dying every single time or you’ll be completely baffled by the premise of Batman. After spending over a decade getting everyone accustomed to comic book storytelling, it’s a little easier.

And the best thing about everyone being accustomed to comic book storytelling is that it allows Captain Marvel to treat genres as pretty much irrelevant. So it can freely hop from car chase to space dogfight to spy movie to buddy movie and be confident that an audience in the 21st century is perfectly able to keep up.

It also means that it can trust that everyone in the audience knows how super-heroes work. Carol Danvers has the same character arc as every other super-hero: being thrown into an extraordinary situation, defining herself on her own terms, and gradually discovering the full extent of her powers. And when she finally becomes the Marvel Universe’s version of Superman (not a spoiler, since it’s all over the trailers!), there’s no longer any tension from just a fight scene. You know she’s going to win, so don’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending that the outcome is in doubt. Just lean 1000% into the 1990s girl power of the movie’s premise and acknowledge that the whole scene exists only to be fun spectacle.

So much of Captain Marvel felt to me like the filmmakers and the audience finally being completely in sync with decades of popular storytelling. It’s an origin story, but it felt like a long overdue relief from origin-story fatigue.

I can still remember being at Wondercon years ago and seeing hundreds of comic book geeks just losing their shit seeing the trailer for Iron Man. I was never a fan of the character, so I just didn’t get the excitement and was a little envious of it. Fast forward a decade, and I’m spending the first part of Avengers Infinity War grinning like an idiot at finally getting the chance to see Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange battling a bad guy in Manhattan.

In a way, it’s even more perfect that Marvel replaced the usual Marvel Studios logo at the beginning of Captain Marvel with a tribute to Stan Lee and a classy title card simply thanking him. This felt to me less like a genre film and more like an acknowledgement of just how pervasive and familiar that Stan Lee’s stories have become. It felt less like a superhero movie and more like a shared cultural moment.