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Saturday, December 30, 2017 03:21 PM
On the Viewer - Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
 by Fëanor

I don't know if you guys heard, but a new Star Wars movie came out recently. Rian Johnson is the director this time. I was excited to hear he'd be in charge, as I've enjoyed his work on Brick and Looper. There's some controversy over his film, however - critics love it, but many fans are angry about what he's done to their beloved Star Wars.

The odd thing is, in a way, the film itself addresses these criticisms. It's a Star Wars film that's at least in part about Star Wars - about legends and stories, and the difficulty of telling them well: of knowing what to keep of what's come before, and what to change. It's about how we deal with the past, how we lead, how we fight our battles. It's about finding the balance we need to make our way through life. It's also got space battles, silly jokes, lightsaber fights, blue milk, rock lifting, and cute little bird-things called porgs. It's long, and perhaps it doesn't quite succeed at striking the balance it seeks between the new and the old, but it's still a pretty great Star Wars movie.

Be wary! From here on out, there be spoilers.

We open with one of those big Star Wars space battles - and a very familiar one, too. The Resistance, the location of its base having been revealed to the First Order at the end of the last movie, is evacuating, and the First Order is trying to blow its ships to pieces before they can escape. It's the start of a chase that will last basically throughout the whole rest of the movie.

In a tone-setting scene with some goofy comedy of a type we're not entirely used to seeing in Star Wars, hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) essentially prank calls General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) before singlehandedly wiping out the main cannons of a First Order dreadnought cruiser (the first appearance, I believe, of such a ship in a Star Wars movie, though it's not terribly different from the ridiculously massive, heavily armed, triangular spaceships we're used to seeing Star Wars bad guys tool around in). General Leia (the irreplaceable Carrie Fisher) is satisfied that this stunt will buy the fleet the time it needs to escape, but Poe wants more: he sees a chance to destroy the dreadnought completely, and he refuses to give up that chance. In an act of defiance that will setup his character arc for the film, as well as establish the continuing tension between him and the Resistance leadership, he demands, despite orders from Leia to the contrary, that his fellow pilots make a bombing run against the dreadnought.

We're used to seeing anonymous pilots explode in fireballs left and right in Star Wars space battles, but in this film, those deaths feel more real and more traumatic than usual. In part this is due to great performances, especially from Fisher. It's also due to the extraordinary number of heroic self-sacrifices in this movie, and the drama inherent in such acts. The gunner who sacrifices herself to make the bombing run a success is Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), and her act will have a strong effect on her sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), whom we'll meet later and learn a lot more about.

Though the bombing run is a success, the cost is high, and when Poe gets back, Leia rewards him with a slap in the face and a demotion from Commander to Captain. He protests that there were many heroes on that bombing run, and Leia replies, "Dead heroes. No leaders." As the story goes on, we realize she is grooming Poe for leadership, and is disappointed that he can't, as she says, "get your head out of your cockpit." The rest of Dameron's arc is him learning, slowly and painfully, the balance needed to be a true leader: knowing when it's time to retreat from the battlefield today so you can fight again tomorrow. Knowing when not to go in with all guns blazing. Knowing when to trust that your own superiors know what they're doing. Poe is rather annoying in this film actually, not least because he is a man constantly explaining to women in authority what it is he thinks they should do, with the implied assumption that they aren't capable of figuring it out on their own. It's never been a good look, but is particularly grating in 2017. In one scene Poe even tells the pilots of an escape craft to fly as fast as they can away from the people shooting at them, as if they weren't already obviously doing that. Thanks for your input, Captain Mansplainer! Eventually he gets so annoying Leia has to wake herself up out of a coma, drag herself off her sick bed, track him down, and stun him with a pistol to get him to stop. It's actually kind of a satisfying moment.

Before Poe gets that slap in the face, he's reunited with his bromantic partner Finn (John Boyega). Finn was, you'll remember, unconscious at the end of the last film, recovering from injuries sustained in his duel with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In a deliberately silly scene, he awakens suddenly in the middle of the space battle and goes wandering through the halls of the cruiser, naked except for a bag that's leaking (presumably healing) fluids. When Poe finds him, Finn's first question is, "Where's Rey?" so naturally we then cut to Rey (Daisy Ridley) right where we left her, handing that lightsaber to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). This time the scene continues, with that same unexpected lack of solemnity the film often has for its subject matter, with Luke taking the saber, tossing it casually over his shoulder, and stalking off wordlessly.

Thus begins a sequence familiar to any fan of martial arts films: the eager and irrepressible student pleading with the reluctant old master again and again to teach her, and enduring any and all hardships in her quest for knowledge, while the master steadfastly refuses her, until finally he's worn down by her persistence and agrees to teach her. It doesn't go exactly the way it usually goes in martial arts movies, but that's to be expected.

Luke, we learn, has come to this island - home to the first Jedi temple - to die. After his failure with Ben Solo and the destruction of his school, Luke has sentenced himself - and the Jedi order itself - to a slow and lingering execution. He has closed himself off from the Force and - as Rey discovers after following him about the island for a day or so - now spends his time fishing with a ridiculously long spear, milking a weird alien creature (in a scene that's funny in a really uncomfortable way), and brooding, not only on his own personal failures, but also on the failures of the Jedi as a whole. All of Luke's visitors try to convince him to return and help them defeat the First Order: first Rey, then Chewie, and finally even R2, who, in a deeply nostalgic and emotionally powerful scene, replays the original holographic message from Leia that first pulled Luke out of the desert backwater of Tatooine and out into the larger world. But Luke only refuses over and over, insisting that he cannot and will not help. He does finally agree to give Rey three lessons in the ways of the Jedi, but only so he can also explain why the Jedi must end.

He tells Rey that the Force is all about balance - the balance between extremes of life and death, of light and darkness. But he himself has become utterly unbalanced, wallowing in the past and dwelling on his failures, shutting himself off from all his friends and loved ones. He claims he wants the Jedi dead, but he's chosen their first temple as his place of banishment, and he reverently protects the resting place of the original Jedi texts. In a fit of pique, he threatens to destroy those texts, but cannot bring himself to actually do it. Luckily, an old friend appears and does the job for him. It's great to see Yoda again, taking on the guise of the silly, wise, prankish oldster we remember from our first meeting with him on Dagobah. He returns now to teach Luke yet another important lesson: that although there are things in the past worth keeping, dwelling on the past to the expense of the present and the future is foolish and destructive. And when we teach, we must pass on not only our strengths, but also - and in fact most importantly - our failures, so our students may learn not to make the same ones, and may eventually surpass us. We must find a balance, in other words, between the new and the old, between weakness and strength.

The thematic opposite of Luke in the film is Kylo Ren, or Ben Solo. When we see him first in this movie, his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (professional motion-capture-suit-wearer Andy Serkis), is supremely unimpressed with his student's performance in the previous film, and calls him "a child in a mask." Shamed, and still twisted and torn by his recent patricide, Ren destroys his mask and jumps into his starfighter with his face uncovered, to take his anger out on the Resistance fleet. But when he senses his mother in his crosshairs - and she in turn senses him - he finds he cannot pull the trigger. Unfortunately, the TIE pilots to either side of him have no such compunctions. They obliterate the bridge of the main Resistance cruiser, killing most of the leadership of the Resistance (including Admiral Ackbar, alas), and sending Leia spiraling out into space. Apparently this threat to her life triggers some innate, heretofore unknown Force ability that allows her to fly herself to safety. It's kind of a goofy visual, but also pretty neat, and makes me wish we could have seen more of Leia as a Jedi.

Although Leia survives, she's left in a coma, so the command of the Resistance falls to Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, in a rather disappointingly small role - although she does have great hair). Poe seems disappointed he's been passed over, and less than impressed with Holdo as a person, so it's not surprising that the two of them get off on the wrong foot from the very start. Poe pulls his old mansplaining act, giving Holdo plenty of unsolicited advice, demanding to know her plan, and even pretending to a higher rank than he actually has. Holdo's reaction is understandably negative, and my sympathy is almost entirely with her, although it is frustrating that she keeps secret from him her plan for saving the Resistance fleet. Why not tell Poe and the other pilots what she's doing, instead of making it appear that she's sitting idly by and allowing the fleet to be slowly destroyed? It seems to be a secret kept merely to create drama later on; a fed-up Poe even goes so far as to lead a mutiny - for which, I'd like to point out, he is never punished. Leia even seems to promote him before the end, ceding command to him during the final escape.

But we were talking about Kylo Ren. Internally, he's clearly still in turmoil, but outwardly he is determined to gain back Snoke's regard and to become the monster Rey accuses him of being. Rey and Ren seem to develop a mysterious connection that allows them to see and speak to each other even across the vast distances that separate them. So while Luke teaches Rey about the Light and pleads with her to reject the Darkness, Ren is there, too, to tempt her to the other side. Beneath the hatred there's definitely an attraction of some sort between Rey and Ren (as many shippers have noticed). At one point Rey psychically intrudes on Ren while he's shirtless and, in another unexpectedly funny moment, asks him if he could find anything to put on.

Ren is Luke's opposite in more ways than one. While Luke is trapped in the past, Ren wants only to charge forward into the future, forgetting the past entirely, killing and leaving behind all parents and teachers and leaders, to take the reins of control for himself and forge his own destiny. And he wants to take Rey with him.

And so Rey finds herself caught between Luke and Ren, desperately seeking balance and a place for herself in the world. She is still obsessed with her own past, so desperate to know the identity of her parents she will even dive into the domain of the Dark Side when it teases her with the possibility of that revelation. But she finds its promise empty and hollow. And she looks also to the future, just as desperate to find help to save the Resistance and destroy the First Order. Who will be the one to guide and help her - Luke Skywalker or Ben Solo? And which one of them is telling the truth about the night Luke's school was destroyed? Luke says Ben turned on him, and Ben says the opposite. But as with all other things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

As if this wasn't enough story, the movie follows yet another set of characters on their own adventure of discovery. Finn, after waking up to find Rey gone and the fleet in a desperate and seemingly hopeless retreat from the First Order, falls back on his old habit of running away from his problems, and tries to sneak off in an escape pod. He's caught in the act by maintenance worker Rose Tico, who feels doubly betrayed by his cowardice and treachery, given her sister's recent sacrifice, and that she looked up to Finn as a hero of the Resistance. In his attempt to convince her of the uselessness of remaining with the fleet, he reveals that the First Order has somehow found a way to track ships through hyperspace. But then the two of them, with their combined technical knowledge, manage to work up a theory, not only of how the tracking works, but of how it might be defeated and the fleet successfully escape. They come to Poe with their plan and Poe, still convinced he knows better than any of the women actually in charge, decides to secretly move forward with the idea without telling anybody. The problem is, they need a hacker to do the job right. He asks Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) for help, but she's busy with a "labor dispute" which involves a lot of shooting and flying around, so she recommends somebody else, an expert that Finn and Rose (with the help of Poe's droid, BB-8) will have to seek out in the casinos of Canto Bight.

Finn is at first dazzled by the riches and charm of Canto Bight, but Rose tells him to look closer. The splendor and beauty of the planet are built on the backs of a poorly treated, slave-like underclass, and the upperclass who enjoy the casinos make their money through arms dealing and war profiteering - selling death and destruction. It's a side of the Star Wars universe we rarely see.

Unable to connect with the hacker Maz recommended, Rose and Finn find themselves forced to accept the help of the shady thief DJ (Benicio del Toro). DJ has an interesting perspective on things. He points out to Finn that those arms dealers don't just sell to the "bad guys" - they sell to both the First Order and the Resistance. It's all a machine, he says, and his advice is not to pick one side or the other, but to simply not join at all - to be only on your own side. Finn and Rose will learn to their cost that DJ follows his own advice. He's found a middle way that works for him, but is devoid of morality, honor, and compassion. I find DJ's character pretty fascinating (despite his slightly irritating speech impediment), and I've always loved Benicio del Toro's acting, so I'm hopeful he will return in the next film in some capacity.

Before escaping back to the Resistance with Rose and BB-8, Finn gets to have it out finally with his old tormentor Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie, who we will, to my disappointment, apparently never get to actually see act outside of her armor in the movies, although we do get a glimpse of one of her eyes in this film - before she plummets into a fireball). Cornered in an old Rebel base and faced once again with the prospect of destruction at the hands of a pseudo-Death Star (this time a battering ram cannon), the Resistance looks at last defeated. But Finn refuses to run or to give up anymore, and tells the others it's time for a last ditch attack. So the few Resistance fighters that are left jump in some crummy old speeders (which are in such bad shape Poe literally puts his foot through the bottom of his) and charge a very intimidating First Order army.

It feels like one battle too many in a very long movie full of battles, and, what with the walkers and all, it also looks a little too much like the Battle of Hoth (even if one rather odd Resistance fighter helpfully points out, after tasting it, that the white stuff on the ground is not snow, but salt), but here we go again!

At this point, Poe has finally learned his lesson, and when he sees the tide turning against him and his fellow pilots, he orders a retreat, rather than pushing forward with another desperate suicidal attack. But Finn has not learned that lesson yet. He's not only found the courage not to run away, he's swung to the other extreme. He ignores all orders to retreat and aims himself right down the cannon's throat, determined not to let the bad guys win. But Rose has lost too much and flies in from the side at the last minute, knocking him out of the way of certain death. She tells him they'll win, not by destroying what they hate, but by protecting what they love. Then, just to make clear what it is she means, she kisses him.

So not only has Finn's love life just gotten a lot more complicated, he's also learned the same lesson our other heroes have: that life is about balance.

Rey, unable to convince Luke to come back with her, decides her last hope lies in turning Ben to the Light, and in the hopes of doing that, leaves Luke behind and surrenders herself to Ben Solo. He in turn gives her over to Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke rips the secret of Luke's location out of Rey and is confident he and his student will now at last see an end to the Resistance and the Jedi, beginning with Rey. He sets a last test for Ren: kill the girl.

Of course, Snoke has also just revealed that he manipulated both Ren and Rey to get to this moment, and the tormented Ren is thoroughly done with treacherous teachers. In a spectacular battle scene, he and Rey make an end of Snoke and all of his laser-weapon-wielding personal guard. It seems for a moment then that Ren will in fact turn and join Rey, but instead he asks her to join him in destroying everything - Resistance, First Order, Jedi - and taking over the galaxy together, just the two of them. But that's not a path she can walk. After a satisfyingly symbolic fight over Luke and Vader's old lightsaber, which ends with them splitting the weapon in half, Rey leaves Ren to rush back to Finn and the Resistance.

During this sequence, Ren answers a question that has been tormenting Rey - and many a Star Wars fan - for a long time: who are Rey's parents? He reveals what she's always secretly known: that they were actually nobody at all - just junk traders - and that they're never coming back for her. It's devastating, but also freeing. She can leave that part of her past behind. And I for one am deeply relieved. I like this revelation very much, especially insofar as it is not at all like the parenting revelations in previous Star Wars movies. Thank God Rey is not a Skywalker! We've had enough of the stories of Skywalkers and their surprise progeny. It's time to move on.

It's a little surprising and even disappointing (despite the thrilling nature of the death scene) to see the big bad, Emperor-type guy go down in the middle film of the trilogy, especially when his character and backstory still remain such a mystery. But perhaps this is setting up Ren to be the big villain in the final movie, and/or we'll learn more about Snoke in flashbacks.

I already enjoyed the bitchy, contentious relationship between General Hux and Kylo Ren in Force Awakens, and in this movie it gets even more entertaining. They've never agreed which one of them is really in charge, and when Hux finds Ren unconscious on the floor of Snoke's throne room, with Snoke's dismembered corpse lying nearby, he reaches for his pistol, hoping to decide things once and for all. When Ren wakes up, Hux puts the gun away again. Then Ren starts shouting orders. Hux objects, but a Force choke from Ren quickly changes his mind. I look forward to more of their squabbling in the next movie. Long live the Supreme Leader!

As Rey returns to her Resistance friends, she shows that she's learned enough about Ren to know how to push his buttons. Rey and Chewie fly the Millenium Falcon down into the middle of the final battle and draw off most of the First Order fighters, giving the Resistance a chance to attack (even if ultimately that attack fails). Ren just cannot resist sending his fighters after his father's old home. He needs to kill all the history embodied by that ship.

Of course, Luke also knows how to push Ren's buttons. In the final sequence of the film, Skywalker finally does come back into the world to save the Resistance - in a way. We're given a number of clues that he's not entirely what he seems. His face is younger than we've seen it recently - it looks more like the way it did the last time Ren saw him, the fateful night the school was destroyed. And the lightsaber Luke carries and duels Ren with is, impossibly, the blue-bladed one Ren and Rey have just destroyed, and not the green-bladed one Luke himself constructed and has wielded for years.

What Luke has decided to do is to give the world back the legend of Luke Skywalker, because he has realized it has its uses after all. It can give hope to the downtrodden, and maybe it can even "light the spark that will burn down the First Order." It can also give the Resistance time to escape out the backdoor of that old Rebel base - as well as royally piss off Kylo Ren. So not Luke himself, but a Force projection of Luke steps out and faces down not just Kylo Ren, but the entire First Order. When the enraged Kylo orders all guns to fire at his old master, the untouchable Luke steps out of the smoke and brushes dust off his shoulder in one of the more mythically bad-ass Star Wars moments.

Luke has found his balance, his middle way. When Ren insists that soon the Resistance and the Jedi will all be dead, Luke can confidently state that no, he's wrong. The Resistance will go on, and Luke will not be the last Jedi. Rey carries with her both Luke's strengths, and the knowledge of his failures, and armed with those, she and the Resistance have hope. Plus she can lift rocks like a bad-ass.

The Force-projected duel against Ren costs Luke more than he has to give, and he vanishes shortly after, becoming one with the Force. In the final scene, the little stable boys on Canto Bight are telling Luke Skywalker's story, reenacting, with their own homemade action figures, his mythical standoff with the First Order. Interrupted in this play by his master and tormentor, one of the boys steps out into the night and picks up a broom (or does the broom jump toward his hand, as if called there by some force?) and stares up into the starry sky, full of hope and wonder.

It's a beautiful scene, and I see it as Rian Johnson's love letter to the story of Star Wars itself - the legend of a farm boy who flies out into the stars and discovers he's much stronger than he ever knew; that maybe his actions can help save the galaxy from evil. It's a story that can give hope to people even during the worst of times.

The new trilogy so far has indeed been making some small progress in killing the past. We lost Han in Force Awakens, and now Luke (and Admiral Ackbar) in Last Jedi. And with Carrie Fisher gone, we will have to lose Leia, as well - a loss that will presumably have to be explained in the next movie, as Johnson decided to let her performance stand as it was in this film. That's all three of the classic trilogy's main heroes gone. The baton must now be passed to the new heroes - Rey and Finn and Poe and Rose and maybe even Ben/Kylo - and I feel confident they will carry it well.

Before his final duel with Ren, Luke has a quick scene with Leia, where he gets to apologize for failing her and her son (it's about time!), and to give her a little hope. In the film, Luke is referring to Han when he says, "No one's ever really gone," but the fact that it's also Mark Hamill talking to Carrie Fisher gives the scene even more power than it would otherwise have had. Our Princess and our General, she will indeed never really be gone. She lives on in these great films, for one.

Johnson sought balance in the way he told his Star Wars story - taking what was best from the old films, but setting aside their mistakes and learning from them - focusing the story more on POC and women, for one thing. There were maybe a few more story elements taken from the old films than was totally necessary, but all in all, I think he struck a pretty fine balance, and told a great story - a Star Wars story. It will not be the last story told about Jedi - not by a long shot. And thank God for that.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Friday, December 16, 2016 07:12 PM
(Last updated on Tuesday, December 20, 2016 10:24 AM)
On the Viewer - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
 by Fëanor

TL;DR - Despite some weird choices and missing details, this is a great movie.

The first of the standalone, spin-off, non-"Episode" Star Wars movies has been released! Rogue One sits in a territory of the timeline that is already being effectively mined by the animated series Star Wars Rebels: the period between Episode III and Episode IV, when the Empire is spreading and gaining power, and the Rebellion is still a scrappy little thing seeking its first big success. It focuses specifically on the small team of misfits that pull together against all odds to steal the plans to the first Death Star. In fact, (spoiler?) the movie takes us right up to the opening second of A New Hope, and features various cameos from that film's cast of characters - sometimes even going so far as to include creepy computer-generated recreations of the actors, or actual footage from the movie.

One of the more interesting things about Rogue One is that it gives us a different perspective on the Rebellion than we're used to. The original trilogy of Star Wars films is fairly black and white: the Rebels and the Jedi are the Good Guys, and the Imperials and the Sith are the Bad Guys. Sure, there are Han and Lando, who do questionable things, but they're the exceptions that prove the rule - a couple of rough and tumble dudes who are ultimately transformed and choose to join the Rebellion when they see it's the right thing to do. The Alliance itself is presented as a kind of monolith - a group of good people united to do good.

Things get a bit more complex in the prequels, as these films are the story of good things going bad - a Republic rotting from the inside and becoming an Empire (sounds familiar!), and a great Jedi falling and becoming twisted into a Sith Lord. But still, there's not a lot of gray area; Anakin and the Republic are good, and then a switch is flipped and they are bad.

What Rogue One gives us is an Alliance that isn't as allied, or as good and pure, as what we've seen in the past. These Rebels are fractious, with their own internal politics, intrigues, and warring factions. One of the first Rebels we meet, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) does very questionable things in service of the Alliance. So questionable that he himself cannot look back at them, and must always move forward, trusting that the end will justify the means (which is a pretty morally and ethically shaky stance for a Star Wars hero). Later, at a Rebel council, we see how at odds the various heads of the movement are, and how easily the whole resistance could have fallen apart in despair and hopelessness right at its beginnings. But hope is what the film is all about: hope that we can see our loved ones again, hope that we can redeem ourselves, hope that we can make a difference, hope that we can somehow stop the darkness, no matter the cost. The "New Hope" from the title of Episode IV starts here - is born here, with the selfless and desperate actions of a group of people thrown together by fate (or the Force?) who seek only to stop the rise of the horrible, destructive, all-encompassing power of the Empire and its terrible new weapon, the Death Star.

Another interesting new perspective that Rogue One gives us is a view of the Star Wars universe through the lens of the ordinary people in it, instead of through the lens of a heroic prophesied Jedi. In fact, for the first time, this is a Star Wars story that has no Jedi in it at all. Donnie Yen's blind mystic warrior, Chirrut Îmwe, appears to be at least Force-sensitive, but as his close friend and partner, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), points out, he is no Jedi - because there are no Jedi anymore. Despite that, a faith in the Force flourishes among the Rebels, and it is much more like a religion here than it has ever been in the other films, where it was more a super power than anything else.

(Time for a plot summary! Mild spoilers follow.)

The central character of the film is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a girl orphaned by the Empire, raised by a rebel even among the Rebels - the warrior Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) - and then cast off into the world to fend for herself. Jyn believes in little except her own survival, and is resigned to the world the way it is - under Imperial control - until she has hope kindled in her again by a message carried by defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). The message is from her long-lost father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), and it reveals that he is still alive, still loves her, and is not truly the traitor he appears to be. In fact, he has hidden a fatal flaw in the heart of the Imperial superweapon he's helped build, if only the Rebels can acquire the plans, and find an opportunity to exploit it. (It's a pleasing revelation that the design flaw in the Death Star was actually put there on purpose by the Rebel sympathizer who was forced to help build the thing.)

Even speaking as a die hard Star Wars fan, I have to admit that the series has never been big on complex characters or deep characterization. Anakin/Vader, as examined over the course of six (now seven!) films, probably ends up being the most complex and deeply realized character in this universe, despite the fact that he starts out in A New Hope as little more than a mysterious black-clad uber villain (albeit the daddy of them all). That being said, The Force Awakens made a successful attempt at deeper characterization, especially with Finn and Rey. Rogue One makes that attempt again, but it goes less well. Part of the reason is simply that there are so many characters, and so much story to tell, that there's little screen time available to devote to backstory and development for them all. By the end of the movie, I didn't feel like I'd really gotten to know any of our main cast. We only get the barest glimpses at their pasts and motivations. Jyn is the person we learn the most about, and I still felt like I was missing important information about her. The good side of this is, we want to know more about these people. They are intriguing, and clearly have fascinating pasts. I'd particularly like to know Captain Andor's story. He clearly has done some horrific things for the Alliance, and they haunt him.

Another good thing about this big cast: it's quite diverse. We've got a woman as the main character, accompanied by a Hispanic man, a black man, a couple of Asian men, and a Pakistani man. The people in charge at the Empire are white, but it seems clear that there's a point being made there - they're Nazis, after all. The Alliance has a lot of white guys, too, but they also have women, aliens, and black and brown people on their ruling council, as well as black and brown people among their ground soldiers.

Probably the greatest character in the film, however, is not any of the humans or aliens. It is instead Captain Andor's sidekick, the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). The droid is a sarcastic, pessimistic, wise-cracking misanthrope, and it's hilarious and fantastic.

More mild spoilers: one of the things I found most disconcerting and odd about the movie was the decision to use computer technology to resurrect Peter Cushing so that he could reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin. Similarly weird was the inclusion of Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia in the final shot, made young again through computer technology. This was very distracting and totally unnecessary. The filmmakers could easily have found actors who looked and sounded like Cushing and a young Fisher and put them in the roles. We're smart people, used to different actors playing the same part; we would have been able to figure it out.

Rogue One is a Star Wars movie that takes a hard look at the filthy reality and the hard costs of war. It is a dark and a brutal story, but it offers us the promise that with these peoples' many sacrifices, a terrible evil will be destroyed, and future people will live in freedom and peace. And sometimes that's the best we can hope for.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Friday, December 18, 2015 04:31 PM
On the Viewer - Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (No Spoilers)
 by Fëanor

Thought I'd dust off the old blog to do a quick, spoilerless write-up of the new Star Wars.

The Bad: OK, let's get the negative stuff out of the way first. The movie has two major flaws: lazy writing, and a tendency to slavishly repeat character relationships, dialog, and other elements from the original trilogy. The former is a typical flaw in gigantic blockbuster movies of this kind. There's a McGuffin at the center of the story that just doesn't really make a lot of sense, and one or two other plot twists that seem a tad contrived. But the second flaw is the larger one. At first it's fun recognizing the echoes from the original trilogy, but as the movie goes on, it starts to feel less like the filmmakers are simply referencing the preceding trilogy and carrying on its themes, and more like they're desperately trying to repeat it in every particular in order to recapture its magic and success.

The Good: All that being said, let me add, the filmmakers actually do a pretty damn good job of recapturing the magic of the original trilogy. For the first half of this movie I just sat there staring at the screen with this gigantic grin on my face that just wouldn't go away. Multiple times I clapped and cheered along with the rest of the audience - as the familiar Lucasfilm logo materialized; as the "A long time ago..." epigraph appeared; as beloved old characters were reintroduced; as the new characters did something amazing.

Speaking of those new characters, John Boyega's Finn and Daisy Ridley's Rey are a delight, and absolutely the best thing about the movie. They are real, warm, human, sympathetic characters, funny and likable, with involving and fascinating stories. Make no mistake: The Force Awakens is not one of the much maligned prequels. There's no awkward dialog and wooden performances. This movie is so much fun - so funny and entertaining. The visual spectacle is awe-inspiring, the special effects are gorgeous and amazing, the action scenes are breathtaking. The Force! Lightsabers! Spaceships! Lasers! WOO!!

Ahem. The point is, this is a Star Wars movie. A real, good, old-fashioned Star Wars movie, like the ones I fell in love with when I was a kid, and have loved ever since with all of my heart. And I cannot wait to see the next one.

Spoilers: OK, so I lied, there are a couple spoilers here. But I'll white them out for you. Highlight if you'd like to see them.

OH MY GOD THEY KILLED HAN!!!! I mean, it worked. It made sense as part of the story. But man. How am I going to show that scene to my son?? I'm gonna have to cover his eyes or something.

The McGuffin I was talking about above is the map to Luke. Why would somebody have part of a map to a guy? And if R2 had almost the entire thing the whole time, why didn't he speak up earlier? And who was Max von Sydow supposed to be? It seemed like we were supposed to know him. And how do you get such a great actor, and then kill him off immediately?

But man, how about John Boyega? A stormtrooper who has a crisis of conscience and switches sides. What a fantastic idea! And he plays it so well. And Rey! What's her story? Why did her parents leave her? Who were they? (If they turn out to be Skywalkers, too, I'll be pissed. Damn Skywalker family.)

I'm really fascinated by the character of Kylo Ren. He seems like such a bad-ass at first, doing these amazing things with the Force that we've never seen before. But as the film goes on, we start to realize he's just a confused, angry child. And really that's what the Dark Side is and should be seen to be: childish, selfish, bratty. Just a bunch of dudes having super-powered tantrums.

What is the deal with Snoke? Is he actually a giant or does he just project himself in holograms that way to be impressive? And Luke! So good to see him at last! I'm so, so curious to see how the next movie plays out, with Snoke completing Ren's training, and Luke hopefully training Rey (and maybe Finn?? Will he turn out to be a Jedi, too?). I'm so excited!
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Wednesday, June 11, 2014 10:34 AM
Book Report - William Shakespeare's The Jedi Doth Return
 by Fëanor

Author Ian Doescher's William Shakespeare's Star Wars trilogy comes to a close with this third entry, The Jedi Doth Return. It is perhaps too close an adaptation of the film, since I found it, like the original, to be the least interesting episode in the trilogy. But it's still entertaining and still worth a read for fans of either Star Wars or Shakespeare.

The book takes its time getting going, but some early highlights include the Max Rebo Band's song about how good it is to be a gangster, and the Rancor Keeper's moving lament after the violent death of his beast at the hands of Luke Skywalker.

Doescher had more difficult linguistic puzzles to solve in this book, but I'm less pleased with the way he handled them this time. The first problem is all the Huttese dialog spoken in Jabba's Palace. His solution is to simply transcribe it exactly as it's spoken in the film with no changes, which was a bit disappointing to me. I was also disappointed by his solution to the problem of the Ewok dialog. The idea of making every piece of Ewok speech a small poem is a good one, but composing the poems by mixing the dialog from the film with an embarrassing and childish pidgin English is... not.

There are plenty of moments of humor and brilliance, however. I enjoy Luke's awkward conversation with Obi-Wan's spirit on Dagobah, and Obi-Wan's aside about midi-chlorians. And as usual there are some great scenes featuring Imperial grunts, such as the boastful speech by a Biker Scout which ends in him crashing into a tree, and the hilarious conversation between two guards, one of whom worries about the possibility of the Rebels doing... exactly what they are doing.

Also as in the previous volumes, there are some really interesting soliloquies and asides that explore the inner life of the characters in more detail than the films ever do, and cleverly nudge at the fourth wall that separates us from the play. In the films, Luke and Leia never really get a chance to talk much about the fact that they are brother and sister, and how uncomfortable that is given their previous dalliances with romance. Also, Princess Leia never really deals (aloud, at least) with the fact that Darth Vader is her father. Here those gaps are filled in in dramatic fashion. Leia also takes the time to muse on the courage and fortitude of her Ewok allies, and the strange fate that has drawn them together. The Emperor gives us a manifesto on the primal importance of power. Wedge contemplates his part in all the major moments of the Rebellion's fight, and points out that he's been an observer of these great events, just as we have been, even while he's also acted in them. R2-D2 helps us visualize the battle of the Rebels and Ewoks against the Imperial troops on Endor by narrating it for us. And Darth Vader has a number of speeches that reveal the conflict and turmoil inside him, conflict that centers around and emanates from his discoveries of the existence of his son and, later, his daughter.

Some other highlights include the Shakespearean redesign of Admiral Ackbar's famous line ("Fie, 'tis a trap!") and Lando of Calrissian's rousing and very Shakespearean speech to rally the troops before they fly into the bowels of the second Death Star, in which he gives prominence to the theme of redemption that runs through all the various storylines of the play:
And finally, the third result of this
Great Death Star's fall shall be the rising up
Of all whose pasts conceal some awful guilt,
Some aspect of their lives that brings regret.
...
In this battle we fight not
To merely terminate an enemy—
Full many of us rebels seek the bliss,
The balm and healing of redemption's touch.
So let it be, my noble comrades all:
Fight now for the Rebellion, fight for all
Who dwell within our galaxy, and fight
Most ardently, indeed, for your own souls.
Thus shall we raise those who by Empire's might
Have died, and forth from their celestial graves
Shall they ascend and with a rebel's voice
Cry "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war!

Of course the central moment of redemption in the story is Vader's, and his transformation back into Anakin Skywalker, Luke's true father. As in the film, that moment is the most moving of the play, and Doescher plays up the drama and humanity of it without making it melodramatic.

Even though this entry is not my favorite in the series, the trilogy as a whole has been highly entertaining, and I would love to see it actually performed live on a stage. Even though this is clearly the end of this particular series of books, our Fool and narrator R2-D2 gives us some hope of a continuation in his final soliloquy, wherein he hints at some future story yet to be told. I have to admit I'm not quite sure what he's referring to. It doesn't sound like he's talking about the Prequels, as one might expect, as he mentions the Rebels and the Empire, neither of which existed during the timeline of those films. Maybe a Shakespearean adaptation of the forthcoming Episode VII? Or of one or more of the books set in the Extended Universe? I'm not sure, but I'll keep my eyes open for it!
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Shakespeare (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Friday, March 28, 2014 03:30 PM
(Last updated on Friday, March 28, 2014 06:53 PM)
Book Report - William Shakespeare's The Empire Striketh Back
 by Fëanor

Here's my review of William Shakespeare's Star Wars: A New Hope. I've now read the inevitable sequel, and just like with the movies, it's even better than the original. Author Ian Doescher has become even more skilled at melding the poetic language of Shakespeare with the story of Star Wars, and early on he shows his flair for invention and humor by giving the Wampa an illuminating soliloquy that's so well done it forces you to sympathize with a man-eating monster. Later on, he gives similarly clever speeches to a squad of AT-ATs, and the space worm that nearly consumes the Millenium Falcon.

And there's plenty more thoughtful twists in the text. Han and Leia's angry bickering is interspersed with asides that reveal their true, passionate feelings for each other. Artoo gets his own clever asides, revealing once again just how smart and aware he is, how strongly he feels about his comrades, and how integral his actions are to the story. In a contemplative moment, Vader asks:
—Hath not a Sith eyes?
Hath not a Sith such feelings, heart, and soul,
As any Jedi Knight did e'er possess?
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you
Blast us, shall we not injur'd be? If you
Assault with lightsaber, do we not die?
I have a body as do other men,
Though made, in part, of wires and steel.

Meanwhile, Admiral Piett muses about Vader's mask and whether it's not more honest to wear one openly, given that the rest of us wear them secretly. Luke speaks of his deep feelings for his friends, and the great conflict within him when he learns the terrible truth about his father.

There's an interesting Afterword in which Doescher speaks of some of the options he considered and the challenges he faced when writing the book, including how to handle Yoda's speech. In the films, of course, Yoda speaks with a kind of backwards grammar that's very distinctive. But everyone speaks a bit like that in a play that's written in iambic pentameter, so how to differentiate Yoda? Doescher's solution is to have Yoda speak entirely in haiku. It works quite well.

Another character with his own unique speech pattern is Boba Fett. Being of the lower class of bounty hunter scum, he gets to eschew the standard iambic pentameter for plain prose. Meanwhile, the Ugnaughts of Cloud City don't speak at all, but rather sing cheery little songs. Speaking of songs, Chewie and Leia get to sing a lament for Han after he's frozen in carbonite. Luke and Vader also have a kind of poetic duet as Luke rejects Vader's offer and falls into the endless pit.

And yes, Doescher does explore that oft joked-about absurdity of the Star Wars universe - that so many of the structures in it have gigantic chasms built into them that are completely lacking in safety precautions. A hilarious discussion between two guards in Cloud City reveals this is all according to the Empire's building standards, and is probably meant to impress us with the Empire's immensity, strength, and fearlessness.

One character who really opens up in Doescher's treatment is Lando. Through asides, Doescher is able to explore Lando's guilt, conflict, and eventual change of heart and redemption.

Another point Doescher makes in his Afterword is that he relied too heavily on the Chorus in his first book, and he tried to minimize his use of it in this one. I don't remember noticing that about the first book, but I feel like the decision was a good one and makes this a stronger play. (Although I appreciated, in the concluding speech by the Chorus, the use of the phrase "by George." By George, indeed.)

Doescher finishes things up with a sonnet that points you to the website for more content, and teases The Jedi Doth Return. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to it.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Movies (Not), Shakespeare (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Friday, June 21, 2013 01:52 PM
(Last updated on Friday, March 28, 2014 03:33 PM)
Book Report - William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope
 by Fëanor

[UPDATE: Check out the fun book trailer!]

Quirk Books is a Philadelphia publisher that puts out... different kinds of books. Books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which I reviewed on Phillyist ages ago) and How to Live with a Huge Penis (which I received a copy of but never read, because... I couldn't quite bring myself to carry it around places). Their upcoming, July 2nd release is no exception: it's William Shakespeare's Star Wars by Ian Doescher.

You can probably guess the premise just from the title. It's the story of the first Star Wars movie (that's Episode IV, people; we shall not speak of Episode I) retold using the language and format of a Shakespearean play. That's right: words like "marry," "prithee," and "knave"; five acts; iambic pentameter; rhyming couplets at the end of each scene - the whole nine yards.

This could easily have been a gimmicky thing that's amusing in concept, but boring and pointless in execution. But it is in fact not that at all. It is brilliant and funny. It is more than just two random things that someone has mashed awkwardly together because mash-ups are cool these days. The two things being mashed together have more in common than you might think (as Doescher himself points out in an Afterword), they've been carefully blended here, and the result is its own, new thing, more than the sum of its parts.

The book announces its intentions immediately on its jacket, which features an illustration of Darth Vader dressed in Elizabethan-era clothing; there are similar illustrations scattered throughout the text inside. Underneath the jacket is a plain brown cover that's been cleverly painted and distressed so the book appears old and well used.

Inside, we find a cast list full of the names of familiar characters, and then the famous opening crawl is spoken in alternately rhyming lines of iambic pentameter by the Chorus, who will return occasionally to explain the action that we're not seeing, or to elaborate on the terse stage directions. (I would love to see this play actually performed live.) Then the action begins with C-3PO declaiming, "Now is the summer of our happiness / Made winter by this sudden, fierce attack!" These, of course, are the opening lines of Richard III, slightly altered. Because not only does Doescher use the general format and language of Shakespeare, he often references specific, famous speeches from the man's plays. Later on, Luke will recreate Prince Hamlet's speech to Yorick's skull while brooding on the helmet of a stormtrooper he's killed, and then raise the morale of the Rebel troops before the attack on the Death Star by copying Henry V's speech before the Battle of Agincourt.

But the text doesn't just include clever allusions to Shakespeare's work. There's also clever foreshadowing of secrets that will be revealed later on in the Star Wars saga (Vader mentions that Leia has a Jedi-like resistance to torture; in an aside, Obi-Wan tries to justify lying to Luke about his father), various amusing Star Wars in-jokes and commentary (more on that below), and even a knock at the saga's most famous rival, Star Trek (while arguing against staging a desperate rescue of Princess Leia from her cell on the Death Star, Han points out that, "To boldy go where none hath gone is wild!").

The book follows the Special Edition of the film, but after killing Greedo, Han refers to one of the more controversial changes made to that version in an aside: "And whether I shot first, I'll ne'er confess!" During the added scene with Jabba the Hutt (which was cut out and replaced by the Greedo scene in the original theatrical version and thus repeats much of the dialogue from that scene), Han says, "As I have said before—O verily, / 'Tis though I just have said thus..." and then continues in an aside, "Aye, true, / It sometimes seemeth I repeat myself."

Doescher's additions to the text aren't all jokes and pop culture references, however. Asides and soliloquies from C-3PO, Darth Vader, Luke, Obi-Wan, and R2-D2 give us deeper insight into these characters and their tortured hearts. Vader hints at his complex past and talks of the darkness that now fills him; Luke speaks of his dreams of adventure and his sadness at the loss of his Aunt and Uncle; Obi-Wan talks of old hopes and disappointments, and the possibility of his own redemption. R2 in particular blossoms under Doescher's pen, for although he speaks only in beeps and squeaks to the other characters, when he speaks to the audience, he does so in clear English, revealing that his schemes and manipulation are in many ways driving the plot.

Doescher even gives added depth to unnamed background characters. One of my favorite scenes is between the two stormtroopers guarding the Millenium Falcon while it sits trapped in the Death Star. Guard 1 summarizes the action so far to Guard 2 - at least, the action as they understand it, given what they've learned in "last week's briefing" - and posits that perhaps Luke and his droids are still hidden on board the ship behind them. Guard 2 scoffs at him and finally convinces him that he must be mistaken. Then they are called inside the ship and promptly killed by our heroes.

Doescher's attempts to force the dialogue of Star Wars into the format of a Shakespearean play occasionally result in language as tortured as any of Yoda's worst dialogue from the prequels (damn, I said I wouldn't talk about the prequels...). But more often he manages to inject real poetry and clever wordplay into Lucas' work, and even occasionally crafts a speech that's so moving and effective it caught me off-guard and choked me up a bit (such as Luke's speech to his fellow Rebels during the attack on the Death Star). Like most Shakespeare, the text definitely benefits from being read aloud, so I recommend you do that. Maybe not while you're on the train on the way to work, but you know, if you're alone with the book, or find yourself in the presence of a willing audience (or at least a captive audience; my three-year-old had no idea what I was talking about, but he's used to me babbling on, so he didn't mind too much). (UPDATE: I should mention, a couple days after I finished this, the kid requested that I read him more of "that R2-D2 book," so maybe he understood more than I thought. And he also liked it, so there you go!)

It's definitely true that people who already love both Shakespeare and Star Wars will get the most out of this book (and, being an English major in his 30s, I am definitely at the center of that Venn diagram; sometimes I feel like this thing was written specifically for me), but I think anybody with an appreciation for language and stories can find something to enjoy here. It's an entertaining book, and I hope to read William Shakespeare's Star Wars: The Empire Striketh Back soon. (UPDATE: I have since done so! Check out my review of the next book.)
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Shakespeare (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Monday, November 26, 2012 01:37 PM
(Last updated on Monday, November 26, 2012 02:53 PM)
Recyclotron
 by Fëanor

Fëanor pours the entire internet into the Recyclotron, and only the best links come out the other end for you to enjoy.

Tagged (?): Advertising (Not), Animals (Not), Animated GIFs (Not), Art (Not), Buffy (Not), Cartoons (Not), Comedy (Not), Comic books (Not), Commercials (Not), Craft (Not), Dogs (Not), Gadgets (Not), Holiday (Not), Links (Not), Movies (Not), News (Not), Painting (Not), Photography (Not), Recyclotron (Not), Science (Not), Space (Not), Star Wars (Not), Superman (Not), Technology (Not), TV (Not), Video (Not), Weather (Not)
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Monday, November 19, 2012 10:44 AM
Recyclotron
 by Fëanor

Fëanor pours the entire internet into the Recyclotron, and only the best links come out the other end for you to enjoy.

Tagged (?): Animated GIFs (Not), Art (Not), Celebrities (Not), Comedy (Not), Comic books (Not), Computers (Not), Disney (Not), Environment (Not), Fashion (Not), James Bond (Not), Links (Not), Movies (Not), News (Not), Photography (Not), Recyclotron (Not), Star Trek (Not), Star Wars (Not), Toys (Not)
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Thursday, November 1, 2012 09:50 AM
(Last updated on Thursday, November 1, 2012 09:53 AM)
A New Hope
 by Fëanor

So it's been a few days since the news broke that Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion. I wasn't sure how to feel about it at first. I think even as few as 5 years ago I probably would have hated the idea. But as time has gone on and I've thought more about this deal, I've become more and more excited about it.

I used to really despise Disney and everything it stood for. I felt like it was responsible for lowering the quality of American entertainment; making everything bland and happy and small-world-after-all-ish. Maybe because I've since had a kid, softened up, and had positive experiences with a lot of Disney products, I've changed my tune quite a bit. I prefer a happy ending these days. Two of my favorite current TV shows, Phineas and Ferb and Gravity Falls, are Disney creations, and even though Pixar has a rocky history with the Mouse, and is in some ways a rather uneasy partner, it is a Disney company, and it's responsible for some truly great films that I personally cherish. Not to mention, Disney now owns Marvel, the creators not only of my favorite comic book universe, but also of some of my favorite recent movies.

Swallowing up Lucasfilm as well is a brilliant move for Disney, and a wise one for Lucas himself. He gets the satisfaction of knowing his baby will be well cared for, by a gigantic company that's in line with his sensibilities and has all the necessary resources, and Disney gets some of the most valuable properties in the entertainment universe.

But beyond that, I think it's a healthy thing for my beloved Star Wars. Lucas had already said he wasn't planning on making any more movies, and frankly, after the prequels, nobody wanted him to. It was pretty clear that even if he did have more movies in him, they weren't going to be good movies. A lot of talent and good ideas went into the prequels, and there was a tremendous amount of potential for great things, which is what makes their ultimate failure all the more disappointing and painful. In my memory I keep reconstructing them as better than they really are, wanting them to live up to my hopes, and each time I return to them, they just seem to get worse and worse. Lucas has great story ideas, and great attention to detail as far as sounds and effects and visuals go, but his abilities as a writer of human dialog and a director of human actors are deeply lacking. The best thing that could happen to Star Wars is that it get handed off to fresh talent with the resources and the ability to do something new and wonderful with it, and I think that might be what just happened.

Of course, Star Wars: Episode VII (and the other sequels that Disney has already promised) could easily be a tremendous failure. It's amazing any movie of that magnitude, with all those moving parts, ever turns out even halfway decent. But I always like to remain cautiously optimistic about things like this, and I feel like with Disney in charge, I have good reason to feel that way.
Tagged (?): Business (Not), Disney (Not), Movies (Not), News (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Wednesday, June 27, 2012 12:44 PM
Recyclotron
 by Fëanor

Fëanor pours the entire internet into the Recyclotron, and only the best links come out the other end for you to enjoy.

Tagged (?): Advertising (Not), Animals (Not), Art (Not), Automobiles (Not), Cartoons (Not), Celebrities (Not), Clothing (Not), Comedy (Not), Commercials (Not), Diablo (Not), Diablo 3 (Not), Harry Potter (Not), Hayao Miyazaki (Not), Highlander (Not), LEGO (Not), Links (Not), Mario (Not), Movies (Not), News (Not), Photography (Not), Recyclotron (Not), Scooby-Doo (Not), Shirts (Not), Star Trek (Not), Star Wars (Not), Toys (Not), TV (Not), Video (Not), Video games (Not), Web comics (Not)
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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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