One Thing I Like About Godzilla vs Kong

Godzilla vs Kong seems perfectly happy to be spectacular, beautiful nonsense

Title Image: Kong vs Godzilla in Hong Kong in Godzilla vs Kong

I liked Kong: Skull Island quite a bit, although apparently that didn’t come through clearly enough in my post about it. A few years ago, I was applying for a job on a licensed video game that I would’ve hated working on, so I’m very fortunate I wasn’t offered the job. At the interview, though, the interviewer mentioned reading that post and seemed skeptical I’d be happy working on a project that was part of a major franchise subject to scrutiny from tons of invested parties.

I was reminded of that while watching Godzilla vs Kong, because it’s very much the culmination of a movie franchise. But it also doesn’t betray a hint of pretense that it’s anything else, or that there’s anything wrong with being the culmination of a movie franchise.

And I really enjoyed the hell out of it. It was big, gleefully dumb fun, on a scale that I don’t think I’ve seen since The Mummy. The aspect of it I love the most is that it knows exactly what it wants to do, and exactly what people want to see when they watch a movie titled Godzilla vs Kong. Which is perfectly illustrated by this scene:

(The rest of this post has spoilers, which I really suggest you avoid reading because there are some fun surprises in the movie, even if you, as I did, go in thinking you’d already been spoiled for all of it).

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Not an Imaginary Story! (One Thing I Like About WandaVision Episode 8)

Episode 8 of WandaVision has what I believe are some great ideas about what’s actually “real”

Lots of spoilers for the entire series of WandaVision in this blog post, obviously, so read at your own peril.

Once again, WandaVision has taken us out of the fantastic bubble of Westview, dumping us into the mundane real world of the MCU, with its boring old stories of centuries-old covens of witches, and top-secret government facilities building fantastic sci-fi weapons to keep super-powered heroes in check.

Like you might expect from an episode titled “Previously On,” this one was full of exposition, delivered via speeches and flashbacks. Like you’d expect from WandaVision, it’s all so well-written and performed and executed that it’s almost a shame that the series’s weird and novel format distracts from how well made the show is.

But right as it ended, I felt a little disappointed. All along,1You’re humming the tune now, aren’t you? my favorite thing about the show has been that I’ve felt completely in sync with the storytelling, even though I recognized almost none of its Easter eggs, comics lore, or ever-growing MCU internal lore.2I nodded sagely when the videos pointed out that Strücker was the name of a Hydra agent, then felt kind of dumb when they pointed out that he was a fairly significant character in a movie that I’ve seen twice. This episode had the most genuinely moving moment in the series so far, if not the entire MCU: of course, it’s Vision’s description of grief as being not emptiness, but “love persevering,” which is especially relevant to everyone who survived 2020. But then it ended with a moment that felt so jarringly artificial to me that it knocked me out of the story so hard, you’d think that I’d just mentioned Ultron.

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She’s Not the Final Boss Now (One Thing I Like About WandaVision)

Episode 6 shows that WandaVision succeeds where other Intrigue TV hasn’t: because it’s about more than just its central mystery

MOVIE CRITICS AND FANS, 2020: The Marvel So-Called “Cinematic” Universe is just a bunch of the same shallow thing over and over again, just punches and CGI.

MARVEL STUDIOS, SOMETIME IN 2019 PROBABLY: Thank you for coming to this meeting. What we need is an early 2000s-style claymation commercial for yogurt with an Extreme Shark and a little boy starving to death, to represent the main character’s survivor’s guilt.

It’s not surprising that I didn’t immediately love episode 6 of WandaVision (“All New Halloween Spooktacular!” if you’re scoring at home), because its format is imitating my least favorite era of sitcoms. All the self-awareness and deconstructionism of the late 80s and early 90s could’ve turned into something interesting, but instead it just turned really shallow, loud, cynical, and soulless all through the late 90s and early 2000s.

Still, I continue to be impressed with how much this series is in tune with the audience. (Or at least this guy in the audience, but I know I’m not the only one). This episode somehow feels like even more of a recalibration/exposition episode than episode 4, which is the one that explicitly went back and set up the situation that led to the series so far.

And that’s not really a gripe; having an episode like this is essential for the pacing. The audience already understands the gimmick for the series, so less time can be spent recreating the sitcom format — screen-time, although most certainly not in terms of production time! — except when the format is in service of setting up the story. It also lines up with the in-story idea that fewer and fewer people are all-in on this altered reality as the season goes on: the leads are less wary of showing off their powers, and we have a better idea that not everyone on screen is caught in the spell.

I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the episode in which the characters are in self-referential costumes, and showing more awareness that they’re all playing roles in a fantasy, is the one paying homage to TV shows that broke the fourth wall. Now I’m wondering if episode 4 wasn’t actually a break in the format. It might’ve been their homage to 1980s television, since it was structured so much like an episode of The X-Files.

Because I’ve felt so in sync with this show, it means that episodes like this are mostly filled with confirmations instead of revelations. Yes, obviously that’s a bad guy. Sure, the people outside of Wanda’s sphere of influence and attention exist in a perpetual, miserable, stasis. Right, Monica Rambeau is probably going to be a super-hero, and good, so are the kids. And as everybody suspected, it’s looking more likely that some soon-to-be-revealed villain at least initiated the whole thing, if they aren’t still actively manipulating Wanda.

It’s a nice change from the usual in Intrigue TV, where you can almost feel the show creators lurking in the background and giggling, “Oh have we got such a delicious secret for you all!

And there were a few genuinely surprising moments, too. First was the commercial I already mentioned, and it was fantastic because it kept up the real genuine gimmick of the series: telling a dark idea using something that’s completely tonally inappropriate and creepy.

Second was that fantastic ending, which raised the stakes in a way I didn’t see coming. I think turning the SWORD agents into clowns and their camp into a circus was a great acknowledgement that they were never going to be the real source of conflict in this series, because the series’s conflict is character driven.

But the one thing I love about WandaVision that I want to call out is that even as it gets closer to revealing more about its central mystery, it’s showing that its central mystery is kind of irrelevant. Maybe I’m just tired of watching so many “102 Easter Eggs You Missed In WandaVision!!!!” videos repeating the same tenuous stabs at sketchy interpretation, but I’m increasingly feeling like the references and Easter eggs simply don’t matter as much as I’d originally thought.

They can be fun, if you’re into that kind of thing — I especially like the observation from the computer displays that SWORD’s project to inhibit or suppress Vision was called Operation Cataract — but the series isn’t actually some puzzle box or ARG that will reward the first person to figure it out. It’s not a show for “nerds.” I have to keep reminding myself that the MCU is gigantic now, and comic books and sci-fi aren’t niche audiences anymore.

It feels increasingly like that idea is implicit in WandaVision: it’s a mash-up of pop culture and “genre fiction” without any apparent interest in putting a value judgment on any of it. Instead, it just treats everything as a shared cultural reference that’s fair game for storytelling. I’ve got to break myself of these outdated ideas of “target audiences” and “nerd television” and such, since they’re ideas used to sell art, not to make or understand it. They’re about excluding people or limiting possibilities, instead of expanding them.

I’m reminded of all the times I’ve seen audiences or executives see something imaginative and react with “Oh, this is so weird! Were the people who made this high? Are audiences going to get it?” This series reacts like Nick Fury to Peter Parker: “Bitch, please. You’ve been to space.”

Is… THIS your identity? (One Thing I Like About In And Of Itself)

Doing my part to add to the hype around Derek DelGaudio’s emotional magic show

I was hyped for the Hulu broadcast of Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself before it premiered, because people on Twitter — not just “people,” but artists I really respect — were breathlessly describing it as a monumental, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The consensus was that it was breathtaking, and that you should watch it knowing nothing about it going in.

I’d agree with the first part, but I’d actually recommend knowing at least enough about it to keep expectations in check. My take is that it’s very good; I was openly sobbing through much of it, and that’s only about 25% because I’m extremely prone to sympathetic crying. The rest is because it’s a genuinely impressive production.

Still, I feel like it would’ve resonated with me even more if my expectations hadn’t been raised so impossibly high by the buzz around it. So I’d actually recommend going in with a reductionist idea of what it is: an ingenious combination of one-man play and stage magic show.

The one aspect I’m most impressed with is how it’s presented, so that it’s practically impossible to be too cynical to appreciate it. It’s a series of feats of stage magic that are telling you, in every moment of the show, including the title of the show, that the “tricks” aren’t the point.

To explain why would definitely be a spoiler, though, so please don’t read the rest of this post until after you’ve seen it.

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One Thing I Like About The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House had quite a few jump scares, but it saved its most masterful tricks for the finale

In my attempt to watch more spooky stuff for Halloween season, I watched The Haunting of Hill House over two nights this weekend. That’s not a typo; instead of The Haunting of Bly Manor that everyone’s talking about, I’m keeping true to my goal of staying at least one year behind popular culture.

I never binge-watch anything. On top of the time commitment, I hate the hollow feeling that comes after being invested in something for hours and then having it just… end. For some reason, I can still remember being in middle school, and a local TV station aired a marathon of episodes of the old sitcom Soap, and I watched hours and hours of it. After the finale aired, I got weirdly depressed and couldn’t sleep. Afterwards, I was trying to explain to my mother why I was so depressed, and I couldn’t make sense of why a sitcom — that I didn’t even think was very good — had such an emotional impact on me. I suspect I just remain a sensitive child who gets overly invested in stories.

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Two Things I Love About Piranesi

Entry for the 7th day of the 10th month in the year everything was relentlessly awful

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is an extraordinary, spectacular, wonderful book. Even among the books I’ve loved, it’s rare for me to find one that makes me feel transformed and transported as I’m reading it, in the distracting, mind-absorbing way that only literature can.

One of those was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Clarke’s gigantic, exhaustive history of magical England. I read it years ago, while I was spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms, and its ability to completely absorb me and surround me in the world she’d created was a blessing of escape from anxiety. I can’t say how much of my love for that book is due to the time in which I read it, but I do know that it wasn’t just “escapism” in the sense of avoiding reality. It was being transported to another place and then returned to reality a little wiser and more perceptive than I’d been before. It’s fitting to be delivered another magical book exactly when I’m most desperately in need of escape.

One of the reasons I started writing “One Thing I Like” was, well, to keep me from rambling on too long about whatever movie or videogame or book I’d just experienced. But mainly, it was to avoid my tendency to be reductive. To stop treating art like an assignment: watch or read or play the work, analyze the narrative (if any), put it in context, pull out the “message” or the one thing that it means. To instead, talk around the experience I had with a work of art or entertainment, drawing out one aspect I particularly like to suggest why it impacted me the way it did.

I especially don’t want to be reductive with Piranesi, because the process of reading it is the source of magic in it. Although the book had a lot of pre-release buzz, apparently, I knew nothing about it other than it was the first book from Clarke in over a decade. (And that it’s surprisingly brief, especially when compared to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). I only read enough of the synopsis to know that it involves a grand house with infinite rooms. I don’t consider it a plot-driven book; its wonder doesn’t depend entirely on its narrative surprises. But I do believe that that ignorance of what I was getting into was a huge part of the wonder of the book: that sense of intrigue and discovery that fills the first half.

Or in other words: I highly recommend it, and I strongly recommend going in cold.

I feel a little like the book was delivered as a Max Headroom-style blipvert directly into my brain, and my subconscious is still unpacking it. There are tons of things I love about it, with more revealing themselves the more I think about it, but right now two are fighting for dominance.

The first thing I love about Piranesi

First: I love the way that Clarke writes villains. Specifically, she writes villains as if they were merely antagonists.

Comparisons between Piranesi and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are inevitable, so I’m just going to lean into them. Both books are most easily categorized as “magical realism,” largely because they both focus on scientists diligently observing and documenting worlds that are too fantastic to be explained by science. One of the wonderful aspects of Jonathan Strange is how well it captures the tone of arrogant optimism of the 19th century, when there was no doubt that with enough observation, experimentation, documentation, and innovation, the unknowable could become knowable.

The protagonist of Piranesi also describes himself as a scientist, but it’s also immediately apparent that he has an unshakeable faith — he exhaustively studies and documents the wonders of the house not to render it knowable, but to affirm and appreciate all the gifts that the house has given him.

But even more than all of the detailed footnotes and methodical journal entries, the two stories more subtly enforce a realistic tone by presenting their villains as casual, conversational, and more carelessly antagonistic than you might expect from fantasies about magical realms. They don’t indulge in grand monologues, nor in moments of sympathetic introspection. Unlike what most of us expect from fantasy stories, it’s never really presented as a grand battle between equally powerful rivals, each with their own motivations, the fate of reality locked in the balance. The villains are banal, capricious, and needlessly cruel.

There’s been a trend in art and entertainment for a while now, where stories are told from the villains’ perspective. The first I became aware of it was Grendel by John Gardner, although I’m sure it must be much older than that. Wicked is the most obvious example from (fairly) recent pop culture. I believe it’s an offshoot of an earnest attempt to make villains more three-dimensional, with their own motivations and their own justifications, instead of merely obstacles for the heroes to overcome. There’s an idea that’s been repeated so often that it’s become accepted as a rule for actors and writers: good villains don’t see themselves as the villain.

Piranesi rejects this. But instead of making its villains seem shallow or artificial, it makes them all the more menacing. And, I would say, more realistic. At least in my own experience, the people who’ve had the most negative impact on my “story” have almost never been the ones targeting me, but the ones who don’t really give a shit about me one way or the other. More than realism, though, it delivers what I think is a longer-lasting and more transformative catharsis. The heroes’ victories aren’t defined in terms of the villain. They win by being brave, compassionate, and kind.

In these stories, evil isn’t the opposite of good, it’s the absence of good. Their heroes devote much of their passion to explaining the inexplicable, knowing the unknowable, but they will never be able to truly understand evil. They lack the capacity for true selfishness and callous carelessness.

The second thing I love about Piranesi

Second: Piranesi is a wonderfully vivid, extended example of metatext, or how the format of the book conveys a core idea of the book.

I have to admit that while I was reading, I was enjoying the book so much that I reflexively started looking for something to criticize. The flaw that my initial enthusiasm must’ve caused me to overlook, or even the one imperfection that made it perfect. I can’t just ramble on effusively about something without having any criticism of it, right?

I found my criticism at around the halfway point, as the story’s mysteries started to be explained. I could fairly easily guess what the clues were leading to, I could make connections the protagonist wasn’t making, I had a very strong feeling I knew what the backstory was going to turn out to be, even if I didn’t know the specific details yet.

(2.5 thing I love about Piranesi: the protagonist typically discovered things or made conclusions about things no more than one page after I’d figured them out. Any time I started second-guessing the novel, it reminded me that everything was under control, and everything was coming together right on schedule. Such a refreshing change to read something that respects the reader’s intelligence, instead of dragging out “intrigue” for chapters while the reader’s shouting “Yes, I get it!”)

So my one major criticism was that after so many chapters of gloriously intriguing expansion, the story starts to rapidly contract as it gets closer to the ending. Mysteries are explained, MacGuffins are found, plot threads are drawn together, loose ends are tied up. It seemed as if this wondrous book used up all its supply of wonder at the beginning. Instead of building up momentum towards a spectacular climax, it seemed to be politely cleaning up after itself.

To be clear: the plot of the book does come to a spectacular climax, but it was also, literally, predictable. (The protagonist predicts it). For a story that had derived so much energy from exploring the inexplicable, everything seemed to have a clear and immediately apparent explanation.

After reading the last chapter, though, I believe that feeling of expansion and contraction is essential to the tremendous impact the book had on me. Throughout the final chapter, there’s a powerful sense of melancholy. The narration is matter-of-fact, even numb. A loss that seems irreplaceable and inevitable. The protagonist had grown to love his prison, and we realize that we had grown to love it as well, because of its seemingly infinite potential energy. Escape is unquestionably preferable to solitude, especially after we’ve been reminded that people are capable of such unselfish kindness and compassion. But it also means abandoning wonder, mystery, and peaceful simplicity.

Piranesi contains a brief reference to Narnia, and when I encountered it, I thought it was just a clever, self-aware touch that confirmed there was a connection between the world of Piranesi’s house and our own world. But when I reached the end of the book, I was overcome with a feeling that was entirely too familiar: it was exactly how I felt as a kid, reading Aslan telling Susan and Peter that they were being banished from Narnia, essentially punished for growing up. It seemed so cruel and sad and unfair and inevitable and natural. I realized that Piranesi was a 245-page prose poem perfectly expressing that feeling. It took me, a 49-year-old, back to the Narnia I remembered from when I was 13. And it left me with a reminder that I could always come back any time I wanted, and while it would never be the same, I now at least had a deeper and more mature understanding of why I couldn’t stay.

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.