STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI Challenges Fandom, and That’s a Good Thing

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI Challenges Fandom, and That’s a Good Thing

Almost 2 months after its initial release, Star Wars: The Last Jedi finally appears to be out of the movie biz headlines. Usually in show business, any publicity is good publicity, but it felt like all the headlines about The Last Jedi were about negative reactions to it, from alt-right fans purposefully sabotaging its Rotten Tomatoes audience rating to director Rian Johnson constantly having to address fan frustrations on panels and in interviews. Because of all the negative coverage, it was easy to get confused about my actual opinion about the movie, which was 100% positive. I grew up a Star Wars fan, but if all these fans were displeased with the movie, was there something wrong with my fandom?

First of all, no. But the polarization surrounding The Last Jedi is worth discussing. Some in the media tended to characterize the backlash as part of a fringe group of fans (usually associated with alt-right views), but that hasn’t been my experience. While the response to the movie from people in my world was largely enthusiastic, I’ve had enough conversations about frustrations with the movie’s plotholes, unusual humor, and unexpected decisions that the backlash feels legitimate to me rather than fringe.

I think I would have preferred the backlash be less legitimate, to be quite honest. I love Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I loved Force Awakens too, but in a different, less passionate way. Both movies are great at what they try to do, but The Last Jedi is trying to do way more. There are several action scenes in The Last Jedi that have no parallel in the Star Wars canon or outside of it: the beautiful throne room scene, the final light saber fight between Kylo Ren and Luke. Johnson has introduced new planets and creatures that fit perfectly alongside any other iconic Star Wars creation: the porgs on Ahch-To where Luke is hiding, the fathiers in the casino city of Canto Bight.

And the rich themes at play in the entire saga are fleshed out in Last Jedi. An overmatched rebellion needs extraordinary people to lead it against an oppressive empire. Those leaders end up being people from nowhere (Luke in the original trilogy, Rey in this one), relying on a spiritual force to save the downtrodden.

Yet this isn’t just a mere rehashing of those themes, but an enriching of them. The old truth that the Force is the balance between all things, rather than a superpower available to only a few, is reinforced. Rey is from nowhere, like Luke, but she truly is nobody. Luke was always the son of a powerful jedi; it appears as though Rey’s parents have no significance. And the rebellion in The Last Jedi is as powerless as we have seen them, remaining alive and even growing because of ideas rather than people.

This wasn’t enough for a lot of fans, because while The Last Jedi expands upon and strengthens many of the saga’s original themes, it deconstructs a lot of what came before as well. Luke comes across as a very different character than he was in the original trilogy. Long stretches of the movie contain plot points that end up being largely pointless in the end, as Finn’s and Rose’s efforts to save the rebellion fail. And the sacred Jedi tree on Ahch-To is burned down by a lightning strike, potentially signaling the symbolic end of the Jedi Order.

A lot of the backlash comes down to feeling like something has been taken from you. The Last Jedi is a total redefinition of everything that came before it, from plot points and characters introduced in The Force Awakens that turned out not to have much significance at all, to the literal burning down of our understanding of the Jedi’s importance in the scheme of things, not to mention the fact that Luke is no longer the hero of the story. A lot of fans grew up relating to Luke, feeling like they too could rise from nothing and be meant for great things. What is Star Wars without Luke as the center of the story?

When I was growing up, we played “Star Wars” on the playground. Kids wanted to be the heroes: Luke or Han or even Obi-Wan. No one wanted to be C-3PO or Chewbacca. I always ended up being Lando, largely because I was one of the less-cool kids and he was a less-central character, but I also liked Lando. Growing up, I didn’t really understand that Lando was black, so he might be off limits to a white kid like me. To me, he was an outsider, and I felt like an outsider.

Luke was never the hero of Star Wars to me. Sure, he was the protagonist, and, to his credit, he chose the light rather than the dark. But it always felt like Darth Vader’s redemption was the more powerful story being told. Within the story that George Lucas wove in the original trilogy, Luke always felt destined to choose good, the product of fate rather than any real, relatable struggle between the power of evil and the love of good. Vader, on the other hand, had the kind of inner conflict that felt more real than anything else in Lucas’s space opera.

Johnson did a great job writing that kind of inner conflict for two of the main characters in The Last Jedi, Rey and Kylo Ren. Both Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver act that conflict admirably, bringing pathos in scenes of mainly dialogue to the kind of movie that usually has to wring emotion out of laser sword battles. Even more impressively, Johnson has written stellar inner conflict for, of all characters, Luke. Instead of the character that was destined to succeed, we see Luke after the failure of a lifetime. It’s tough to watch at points, but in a way that’s rewarding in the end.

Ultimately, it seems the hardest part for some fans to swallow is that Luke is no longer the hero of this story. He saves the day in the end, but the end is clear that this is no longer his story, but Rey’s. Rey, who is the outsider that Luke only thought he was. Rey, who potentially has no family stake in this war and must fight on principle alone. Rey, who has a chance to right Luke’s wrongs. Rey, who is a woman. These fans don’t even recognize the very thing they think is being taken from them. A hard reality to face: the thing you love wasn’t even yours to begin with.

Now, clearly this is just a segment of Star Wars fandom; I’ve had conversations with several friends, Star Wars fans, that were underwhelmed because of their aesthetic preferences and not some misplaced expectations on the kind of story they were owed. Having preferences isn’t the same thing as holding something hostage to them. Art is dependent on the feelings and thoughts it evokes while being experience, so it doesn’t belong to anyone, not even the people who made it. Star Wars doesn’t belong to anyone. Which is another way of saying, Star Wars belongs to everyone.

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If I Ran the 2018 Grammys

If I Ran the 2018 Grammys

I do this every year, and the amount of time I spend on it far outweighs the amount I care about the real Grammys. But damned if I’m not back here again, discovering that the Grammys think Metallica is still making award-worthy music in 2018.

It does feel like this year’s nominees in the main categories line up a bit more with mine than usual, which means, of course, that they’re closer to being right.

A few ground rules for this largely pointless exercise:

1) I’ll give the real nominees with my prediction for the winner in bold. Then I’ll give you who I would have nominated, with my choice for the best in that group in bold.

2) We all know the October 1st, 2016-September 30th, 2017 qualifying dates are stupid, but we’re going to keep them in the interest of chaos. I can’t fix everything about the Grammys. So no Taylor Swift, but Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings (from 2016, but released in November) is fair game.

3) For the four major awards (Album, Record, Song, New Artist), I’m realistic. Father John Misty and Propaganda made two of my favorite albums in the qualifying year, but they’re too niche to be nominated for Album of the Year. However, Alicia Keys and SZA also released albums I loved, and they’re plausible options for the big one. But when it comes to the genre awards, anything goes- hence, artists like Joan Shelley, Sho Baraka, and Sheer Mag getting nods over more popular acts in their respective categories.

4) Genre boundaries are fuzzy- London Grammar’s and Lana Del Rey’s albums could really fit into pop or alternative, Phoebe Bridgers and Hurray for the Riff Raff could easily be considered Americana instead of alternative, John Legend might be more of a pop artist than urban contemporary, etc. So I went with my gut. I don’t have your gut, so if you disagree with me on whether or not Spoon belongs in the alternative or rock category, sorry.

5) Forget the 5-nominee limit! Sometimes the Grammys do this; a genre will have enough contenders that they’ll fit 6 nominees into one category because of a tie. I’ve often wondered why more award shows don’t open categories up a bit more. If there are enough albums that truly deserve to be in the conversation, why not include them and draw more attention to more great music? Let’s have a little anarchy! Except in the 4 main categories, which will continue to have the rigid 5-nominee rule, because too much anarchy is a bad thing.

Album of the Year:

Real nominees: Bruno Mars, 24K Magic
Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”
JAY-Z, 4:44
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Lorde, Melodrama

My nominees: Alicia Keys, Here
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Lorde, Melodrama
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
SZA, Ctrl

Is this the year when a black nominee finally wins Album of the Year? Seems likely that it will finally be a person of color for the first time in 10 years. But it also would not be surprising for Lorde to win, given how great her album is. On one hand, the Grammys don’t matter, so Lorde winning would be insignificant. On the other hand, award shows like this are touchstones within every year that we use to get a feel for the story our culture is telling. Over the last 10 years, the story has felt like a rejection of the amazing work that people of color have built. Lorde deserves to win, but so does Kendrick, and I can’t help but feel like the Academy will finally choose to reward him. And Kendrick would be my personal pick too, with a slight edge over Lorde. He should have won for TPAB, but DAMN. seems like the kind of record that is going to seem weirdly underrated in comparison to its titanic predecessor.

I could take or leave the rest of the Academy’s choices. I like JAY-Z’s album, but it’s a little overrated for its pop cultural significance. 24K Magic has great singles, but that’s about it. I’ve never gotten into Childish Gambino, but “Redbone” is the shit. I would have rather seen the underrated Here get some love for an artist that really embraced a less pop-driven sound to make a statement record. Lambert’s most recent record, a 2-disc opus, also deserves to be considered. And SZA, the breakout star of the moment, made an album that should not be relegated to the genre awards but seen as belonging among the best of the best.

Record of the Year

Real nominees: Bruno Mars, “24K Magic”
Childish Gambino, “Redbone”
JAY-Z, “The Story of O.J.”
Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito (feat. Justin Bieber)”

My nominees: Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”
Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito (feat. Justin Bieber)”
Migos, “Bad and Boujee (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)”
Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”

I understand the difference between Record of the Year and Song of the Year, but I’m not sure the Academy does. Record of the Year is supposed to focus on the performance and the production, while Song of the Year is supposed to focus on the songwriting. If they actually vote based on the award’s definition, I don’t see how any song but Kendrick’s wins. But if they don’t, “Despacito” could sweep both song awards.

I wouldn’t be too mad about that; “Despacito” is a banger, for sure. I’m surprised 2 of the obvious songs of the year aren’t nominated though: “Bodak Yellow” and “Bad and Boujee,” both of which dominated the culture during their respective seasons. But my personal favorite belongs to Selena Gomez, who altered her singing style and leaned on Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter to craft the most interesting pop song of the year.

Song of the Year

Real nominees: Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like”
JAY-Z, “The Story of O.J.”
Julia Michaels, “Issues”
Logic, “1-800-273-8255 (feat. Alessia Cara & Khalid)”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito (feat. Justin Bieber)”

My nominees: Childish Gambino, “Redbone”
Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times”
Kesha, “Praying”
Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”
The Weeknd, “I Feel It Coming (feat. Daft Punk)”

Hard to imagine anything but “Despacito” winning, but if the Academy is going to pick a category to screw up, I can see it being this one. The fact that “Issues” and “1-800-273-8255” are in here suggests the voters did not know what to make of their options. I’m surprised the Weeknd or Harry Styles didn’t get a look from them. I suppose it’s not surprising that Kesha didn’t get a nod, seeing as there are probably enough voters in the Academy who still feel enough of a kinship with Dr. Luke to see Kesha as too controversial. But her “Praying” is the best pop song of the year by far, eliciting tears from me nearly every time I hear it.

I can’t believe I typed that sentence, but here we are.

Best New Artist

Real nominees: Alessia Cara
Khalid
Lil Uzi Vert
Julia Michaels
SZA

My nominees: Cardi B
Harry Styles
Julien Baker
Lil Uzi Vert
SZA

Not sure why Alessia Cara is here, since she broke out during the previous qualifying year, but I’m happy she’s getting some love. SZA seems like the favorite here, but it’s not by a lot. Anyone could win in this category, and I wouldn’t be surprised. I would have liked to have seen Harry Styles get honored with a nomination here, though I supposed the Academy may not consider him new, since he was in One Direction and all, but seeing as he released his first solo album this year, I say he qualifies. I don’t understand the Julia Michaels love; her songs have been better interpreted by other artists. Julien Baker, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who took the online indie community by storm with her single, “Appointments,” is who I would replace Michaels with.

Best Alternative Album

Real nominees: Arcade Fire, Everything Now
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Gorillaz, Humanz
LCD Soundsystem, American Dream
The National, Sleep Well Beast

My nominees: Big Thief, Capacity
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator
Hundred Waters, Communicating
Phoebe Bridgers, Stranger in the Alps
Spoon, Hot Thoughts

The Academy loves Arcade Fire, but LCD Soundsystem could be the dark horse for orchestrating a successful comeback, as silly as it may have been. As far as indie electronic music goes, though, I preferred Hundred Waters. Father John Misty made my favorite album of 2017, so he of course gets my bid here, though Hurray for the Riff Raff was hot on his heels. Gorillaz and the National were fine legacy act picks from the Academy to go with LCD, but the best indie legacy act of the year was Spoon, and it wasn’t close. Rounding things out are 2 female-powered acts who bare all through their words, Phoebe Bridgers and Big Thief.

Best Americana/Country Album

Real nominees (Best Country Album): Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1
Kenny Chesney, Cosmic Hallelujah
Lady Antebellum, Heart Break
Little Big Town, The Breaker
Thomas Rhett, Life Changes

My nominees: Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1
David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere
Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound
Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
Paul Cauthen, My Gospel
Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway

There’s a world where Lady Antebellum wins, given their undue past recognition from the Academy, but I think Chris Stapleton’s Traveller is still fresh in voters’ minds, and he’ll take it the night of. That album and Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings rank up there with any other album of this year for me, but Joan Shelley’s self-titled takes the title for me by a hair. Jason Isbell has received plenty of accolades for his newest album, and he’s nominated in the Americana category. I like things a little simpler than the Academy, so I’d lump the 2 categories together and highlight some more obscure acts, like Texas’s David Ramirez and Paul Cauthen, as well as North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger and Rhiannon Giddens.

Best Christian Album

Real nominees (Best Contemporary Christian Music Album): Danny Gokey, Rise
Matt Maher, Echoes [Deluxe Edition]
MercyMe, Lifer
Tauren Wells, Hills and Valleys
Zach Williams, Chain Breaker

My nominees: The Brilliance, All Is Not Lost
CeCe Winans, Let Them Fall in Love
Ellie Holcomb, Red Sea Road
John Mark McMillan, Mercury & Lightning
Stu Garrard, Beatitudes

I find popular Christian music less and less interesting with every passing year. So I haven’t listened to any of the nominated albums, though I’ve heard a few Tauren Wells songs in passing. Wells feels more of the moment than the rest of these acts. The good Christian music struggles to be heard. John Mark McMillan is perennially underrated, and though Stu Garrard was part of one of the most popular Christian acts of all time (Delirious?), he himself is not a Christian household name. Neither is Ellie Holcomb, even though she’s one of the best worship songwriters in recent memory. CeCe Winans is probably the best-known name on this list, and her most recent album is near perfect. But my favorite is the album from The Brilliance, who leave no stone unturned on their quest to properly worship the father in all manners of music-making.

Best Pop Album

Real nominees (Best Pop Vocal Album): Coldplay, Kaleidoscope EP
Ed Sheeran, ÷
Imagine Dragons, Evolve
Kesha, Rainbow
Lady Gaga, Joanne
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life

My nominees: HAIM, Something to Tell You
Kesha, Rainbow
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life
London Grammar, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing
Lorde, Melodrama

This isn’t a particularly inspiring category, even if half of it seems kind of laughable that it’s included with the other half. Both HAIM and London Grammar could wipe the floor with that Coldplay EP (which is secretly pretty good), Ed Sheeran, and Imagine Dragons. I think the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement will inspire voters to given Kesha the vote. But the best pop album of the qualifying year should have been Lorde’s to lose. She was inexplicably not nominated in any of the genre awards.

Best R&B/Urban Contemporary Album

Real nominees (Best Urban Contemporary Album): 6LACK, Free 6LACK
Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”
Khalid, American Teen
SZA, Ctrl
The Weeknd, Starboy

My nominees: Alicia Keys, Here
John Legend, DARKNESS AND LIGHT
Kehlani, SweetSexySavage
Lizzo, Coconut Oil
Sampha, Process
SZA, Ctrl

There’s so much good R&B right now, it’s surprising the best the Academy could come up with to accompany likely winner Childish Gambino, the Weeknd, and SZA, was 6LACK and Khalid. Any of Sampha, Lizzo, or Kehlani would have been worthier. Both Alicia Keys and John Legend went unnoticed at the end of 2016, even though their albums were the best of their respective careers. I’m okay with Childish Gambino winning, but SZA winning would be the best.

Best Rap Album

Real nominees: JAY-Z, 4:44
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Migos, Culture
Rapsody, Laila’s Wisdom
Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy

My nominees: Drake, More Life
Future, HNDRXX
JAY-Z, 4:44
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Propaganda, Crooked
Sho Baraka, The Narrative

It’s possible that JAY-Z will take this, since there seems to be a lot of support for his shot at redemption. It’s definitely his best album in 10 or so years, but it’s not anywhere close to as deep and interesting as Kendrick’s. It’s fun seeing Migos, Rapsody, and Tyler get some mainstream Grammy love. It’s not like Drake and Future needed any more attention, even though their albums were great steps forward for both artists. I doubt Christian rap will ever get proper love in this category, but my 2 favorite rap albums of the qualifying year were from 2 bold Christian hip-hop artists, Sho Baraka and Propaganda.

Best Rock Album

Real nominees: Mastodon, Emperor of Sand
Metallica, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct
Nothing More, The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Queens of the Stone Age, Villains
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding

My nominees: Gang of Youths, Go Farther in Lightness
Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.
Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
White Reaper, The World’s Best American Band

I have absolutely no feel for what the Grammys value in rock music. Two rock bands could not be more different than Metallica and The War on Drugs, and I don’t know what a Nothing More is. I’m guessing they’ve never heard of my pick, Jeff Rosenstock, or Sheer Mag or White Reaper, even though the Internet has been gushing about them for the last two years. Surely they’ve heard of Japandroids if they know who The War on Drugs is? Unfortunately, there’s no way Gang of Youths would have been nominated, since the Australia band has yet to cross over here in America, even their album is the best rock album I heard in 2017. I guess Queens of the Stone Age will win? I have no idea.

Top Movies You Won’t Find on 2017’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I highlight 3 movies that didn’t end up on any critic’s top ten list. That’s slightly misleading; I survey this Metacritic collection of lists, and if the movie doesn’t appear on 3 or more lists, it gets considered for this post. If I missed a list, it’s all over, the world, everything. For everyone. I’m sorry.

After the Storm: Hirokazu Kore-eda is a celebrated Japanese director who makes small, quiet movies. Ten years ago, his masterpiece, Still Walking, was released here in the states, and its portrayal of a family still struggling to move on after tragedy got at more truths in single scenes than most movies do in their entire running time. After the Storm does the same, even though its primary focus is not grief or regret but addiction and responsibility.

Alien: Covenant:  I’ll forgive you if you didn’t like Ridley Scott’s first Alien prequel from 2012, Prometheus, because it was purposefully ambivalent about providing answers. Covenant is not, and its themes are more contained within the story portrayed onscreen, rather than flailing about at philosophical questions the story cannot quite support. It also gives us another stellar Michael Fassbender performance and some truly chilling horror sequences that belong among the franchise’s best.

The Salesman: Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi burst onto the international scene with 2011’s A Separation, which went onto win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. That movie provided a window into a family navigating the perilous waters of Iran’s social norms as they underwent a divorce. Farhadi’s subsequent movies (2013’s The Past, 2015’s About Elly) were similarly incisive in their dissection of societal expectations in unusual circumstances, but The Salesman is probably Farhadi’s best since A Separation, taking its situation to its extreme without crossing over into self-parody.

Top Albums You Won’t Find on 2017’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I highlight 5 albums that didn’t end up on any critic’s top ten lists. That’s slightly misleading; I survey this Metacritic collection of lists, and if the album doesn’t appear on 3 or more lists, it gets considered for this post. If it’s a Christian album, I just search the usual way (read: Google) through some of the main Christian music publications. If I missed a list, it’s okay; no one’s life is over.

The Brilliance, All Is Not Lost: There have been several artists in Christian music history that have bucked (or set) the industry’s trends, but there are few today outside of hip-hop. The Brilliance have some of the kitchen-sink creativity that most recently blessed Gungor before that band veered into emergent-church territory. This makes sense, since one of The Brilliance’s primary members is David Gungor, the brother of Gungor’s Michael. But where Michael’s band has taken a decidedly meditative tack, David’s has set his rudder directly toward celebration. Beautifully synthesizing several genres, The Brilliance overcome worship music tropes, celebrating a God for everybody with music for everybody.

Caroline Spence, Spades & Roses: I understand Margo Price receiving all of 2017’s allotted attention for female off-the-beaten-path Nashvillians, because Price is brilliant. But now that 2017 is over, please turn your attention to its forgotten folk artist, Caroline Spence. Her 2015 album Somehow won me over with its plain-spoken heartbreak spiked with hard liquor. Spades & Roses is like Somehow, but with more liquor. This is best exemplified on standout track, “All the Beds I’ve Made,” in which beds and all their accoutrement become a metaphor not for love, but for the hope that this one will make you forget the rest.

David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere: I wrote about this album not 6 weeks ago, and I’m still on a high for the response it got. Ramirez himself retweeted the post and said it was “one of [his] favorite reviews for the new album,” and I could have cried. You write about an album you love and you hope someone reads it. You never expect the artist to read it and, much less, appreciate it. Ultimately, I just want this album to get attention, because it’s a devastatingly good folk album from one of Austin’s best resident musicians.

Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow: You’ll be forgiven if you’re not into Americana and haven’t heard of Hiss Golden Messenger, the Carolina-based outfit from the prolific M.C. Taylor. You’ll also be forgiven if you are into Americana and can’t remember which album of his is which. But holding this against him is like complaining that Cary Grant plays the same character in every movie- he does what he’s good at, and he’s the best at it. Taylor has a tried and true sound, a mélange of soul and backwoods blues befitting his scruffy look and family life. What makes Hallelujah Anyhow special in light of the rest of his discography is an unabashed celebration of life in the face of life’s mundanity.

Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley: Another Americana artist on this list, yes, but Shelley is quite unlike any other Americana artist we are familiar with. That’s partly because she doesn’t even consider herself an Americana musician, but mostly because she’s a singular artist. Her first few albums trafficked in Appalachian folk music, but Joan Shelley is a slight change in direction for the Kentucky artist. Her transfixing voice is still the focal point here, but she’s less reliant on her usual guitarists to give her voice its home. Instead, she travels outside her comfort zone to songs with barely any production at all, and more of a reliance on plinking keys rather than plucking strings, and her music has broadened with her world.

COCO: Simple, but Beautiful

COCO: Simple, but Beautiful

I cried a lot during this movie. I’m not ashamed of it – I’m not the only grown man I’ve talked to who cried during this movie. I think it’s a chronic thing, an epidemic of sorts among grown men who see Inside Out, and I want all you other grown men to know ahead of time, so you can practice hiding your faces from your significant others and sniffling quietly enough to not attract any attention.

I wrote that two years ago in my last review of a Pixar movie. Replace “Inside Out” with “Coco” and this would be a fitting introduction to Pixar’s newest movie. It’s worth wondering if Pixar is actually good at conjuring emotions at the drop of a musical cue or if I’m just prone to blubbering. I hope you’ll believe me when I say that both are true.

Coco focuses on a boy (the winsome Anthony Gonzalez) of about 12 years who gets trapped in the Land of the Dead and sets off to find his great-great-grandfather to help him cross back over to the living. All signs point to his great-great-grandfather being the most famous Latin singer of all time, Ernesto de la Cruz (a surprising Benjamin Bratt), who is also from the boy’s hometown. The boy happens to love de la Cruz’s music and wants to be a musician himself, but his family despises music and shuns all traces of it from their lives, due to the boy’s great-great-grandfather leaving his wife with a young daughter to pursue his dream of being a musician.

The boy’s name is actually Miguel, not Coco. Coco is Miguel’s great-grandmother, the aforementioned young daughter of Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, and she is still alive, though she barely talks, and when she does, what she says is either incoherent or irrelevant to the conversation. You won’t understand why the movie isn’t named Miguel until you see the whole thing. Coco is the movie’s emotional hinge; the floodgates don’t open without her.

And you’ll see from a mile away that they’re about to open, to be honest. While Coco is an engaging story with good voice work from its cast and a poignant ending, much of the movie is fairly predictable. The middle section of the movie had the potential to be something new, much in the way that Joy’s and Sadness’s journey in Inside Out was wholly original, but the movie is more concerned with hitting the plot beats that get you to the ending you already know it coming. Predictability is not necessarily a fatal flaw; I still enjoyed the movie, and there’s something comfortable about knowing where a movie is going. But you mourn for what might have been.

But oh! How beautiful is the Land of the Dead in Coco! For any regret I had for the story Coco could have been, I had twice the excitement for how it looks. The colors pop, the lines of the architecture stir the spirit, the physics of creating such a world boggle the mind. Pixar has always been ahead of the curve among mainstream studios at treating each screenshot like an individual work of art. Coco’s swirls of brightness and rich detail take this to another level.

And in the end, it didn’t matter that I saw the ending coming, because I cried like a baby anyway. If you’ve ever witnessed an older relative begin to disappear within themselves, you will too. I expect a lot from Pixar movies, and even when the studio stumbles in its storytelling, it still has a better handle than anyone else on the emotional connections at the heart of families. So who cares if Coco took a conventional approach? The conventional approach worked.

Merry Christmas 2017

In honor  of the fact that we can say “Merry Christmas” again without facing atrocious persecution, I named this post “Merry Christmas 2017,” because I have definitely never written any posts with “Merry Christmas” in the title before.

Anyway, this post is an opportunity to feature some of my favorite Christmas albums so that you can listen to them before we run out of time to listen to the eargold that is Christmas music. This year I didn’t listen to as many new albums as I wanted, but I’ve got one new favorite, an old favorite, and a new old favorite.

A New Favorite

Weston Skaggs, Stories for Christmas! EP (2017): I’m generally a classicist when it comes to the music I listen to at Christmas, which means that I prefer the standards to artists’ often lame attempts at writing original Christmas music. Christmastime is built so much on nostalgia that new songs often fail to capture the feel of the season. Instead, they feel cheap and artificial, which is not the kind of Christmas I prefer. Weston Skaggs, however, has made an EP entirely out of originals, and it’s perfect. Skaggs is a worship leader out of Cleveland, so most of the songs deal directly with the Christmas story (the sobering “Wise Men Still Seek Him”, the galvanizing “Prepare Him Room (feat. Anthony & Chris Hoisington)”), though there are a couple that deal more with the season in general (the earnest “Dickens Song”, the lilting “Winter Song”). I wasn’t familiar with Skaggs’s music before this, but his style is not what you expect when you hear the term “worship leader.” His delivery is more akin to a call-and-response folk singer, and his instrumentation is appropriately spare. For a classicist like me, his songs will fit right in with the old stuff.

An Old Favorite

Bing Crosby, White Christmas (1955): This album hardly needs my endorsement given that “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all time. The album itself is nearly as popular, having undergone many different releases over the years to the point that the most recent edition of the album has a completely different tracklist than the original with different recordings of several songs. Crosby will always be synonymous with Christmas. Part of it is that his singing style is the standard that so many artists held for what Christmas music should sound like, so now listeners think this is what Christmas sounds like. But White Christmas isn’t just popular because it’s popular. Crosby sings these songs with such tenderness and ease, eschewing any kitsch that’s naturally present in the secular carols and overcoming any stiltedness that comes with the hymns. Nat King Cole did a similar thing 6 years later with The Magic of Christmas (which we know now as the reissued The Christmas Song), and now both albums are bona fide classics. It’s not a formula everyone could follow to craft a brilliant Christmas album, but trying a little tenderness is always worth it.

A New Old Favorite

Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow (2014): Like Skaggs, Over the Rhine, made up of married couple Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, hails from Ohio, though from Cincinnati. Unlike Skaggs, I’m very familiar with their music; I’ve listened to every one of their albums, and they’re one of my favorite bands. So it’s not like I had never heard Blood Oranges before (I listened to it when it came out), but I really love Over the Rhine’s first Christmas album, Snow Angels (2007), and Blood Oranges isn’t really like that one. Like Skaggs’s Stories, both albums are made up of originals, but Snow Angels is downright cheeky, and it seems to come from a place of optimism and celebration (even if the first song is “All I Ever Get for Christmas Is Blue”), like the nog was spiked in the studio. Blood Oranges is a little more sober, and also somber. Two of the songs are titled “My Father’s Body” and “If We Make It Through December,” not to mention their play on “Auld Lang Syne” which is about staying home instead of enjoying old acquaintances. I don’t mean to suggest these songs are negative, but they seem written for a Christmas after a hard year full of beatings, to bring joy to the world rather than celebrating the joy in the world. I’ve had a good year, but the Christmas music of the broken-down and weary speaks to me more and more.

With THOR: RAGNAROK, Marvel Is Learning, and We Are Winning

With THOR: RAGNAROK, Marvel Is Learning, and We Are Winning

Without fail, upon the release of a new Marvel movie, critical cynicism reaches a new peak. Make no mistake, Thor: Ragnarok has gotten good reviews. But even the favorable reviews seem skeptical this gigantic Marvel experiment. An otherwise positive notice at Vox notes the “current glut of superhero TV shows and movies.” The writer isn’t wrong- it feels like there’s too much of everything at this point- but the phrase is a microcosm of critical feeling about Marvel movies: there’s too many of these things, and we’re tired of watching them.

It’s an understandable feeling, but audiences don’t seem to agree. The three Marvel Cinematic Universe movies released this year (including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming) are all in the top half of all the franchise’s opening weekend totals (17 in all), which suggests audience interest is still high. And when people see the movies, they’ve told other people they like them; all three are now in the franchise’s top ten grosses (and Ragnarok will likely rise into the top half), suggesting word of mouth continues to be strong for Marvel’s movies.

Of course, if you’re looking at my use of the movies’ popularity as an argument for their quality and about to tell me that popularity isn’t an indicator of quality, I’m way ahead of you. A lot of movies make a lot of money and are still bad movies. What I’m pointing out is the discrepancy between the appetites of audiences and critics. Critics want to be thoughtful about movies, and many people in the general populace couldn’t care less about thinking about movies.

One of the reasons it’s hard to be think critically about a Marvel movie is that many of them have been tied to setting up the next one, especially a lot of them between the first Avengers and the second. Movies that don’t stand alone don’t stand up well to critical thought. But the three Marvel movies released this year suggest Marvel may be changing its model, and critics and audiences both win as a result.

For one, Marvel appears to be relaxing its grip on the tone of its movies. Thor: Ragnarok is the most extreme example of this yet. Taika Waititi, celebrated in indie circles for What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, strikes a much lighter chord in this direction than any Marvel director yet. Even James Gunn with his Guardians movies and Peyton Reed with Ant-Man were a little more beholden than Waititi to the Marvel tone, which allows for humor but never allows it to be the point of a scene. Humor is the whole point of Thor: Ragnarok’s entirety.

That’s not to say Waititi doesn’t take these characters seriously. There are real arcs to all the main players: Thor (a Chris Hemsworth who finally gets to really let his comedy chops loose) gradually comes to accept his role as Asgard’s protector, Hulk (a manic Mark Ruffalo) finds belonging, Valkyrie (a scene-stealing Tessa Thompson) regains her purpose. These are legitimate plotlines given weight by a director who cares about these characters. But part of their growth involves flying into a wormhole named the Devil’s Anus. The humor is baked into the plot, which makes for a movie with joy and delight at its core.

Marvel also appears more willing to allow its movies to function on their own without constant callbacks to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s not to say Thor: Ragnarok is completed devoid of references to the other Avengers. But Ragnarok’s plot appears to be unconnected to the main thrust of Marvel’s current phase, allowing Waititi to tell a complete story from beginning to end. The movie’s themes are the better for it: a nation-state’s value lying in its people and not its land, a hero learning to take ownership of his fate, coming to terms with the sins of our fathers, etc. None of these would have been better served by a movie beholden to other plots outside of its own, without a true beginning or end.

Of course, if you know anything at all about the comics, it’s not hard to draw the lines from Ragnarok to the rest of the MCU. Hela (Cate Blanchett, devouring the CGI scenery), Thor’s sister, is the goddess of death, and upcoming MCU villain Thanos commits many of his most heinous acts in the comics to impress Death. Also, apparently Thanos and Hela recently made out in the comics. So the lines are there, but unlike in previous MCU installments, you aren’t forced to look at them. Ragnarok feels like a movie that shapes the MCU rather than one shaped by it.

The best way Marvel shows in Thor: Ragnarok that it is learning is Tessa Thompson. Of course, there’s the fact that she’s a black actress integral to the plot, which is a nice change of pace from blockbusters in general, not to mention from the largely white, male MCU. But the comic-book character her role is based on, Valkyrie, is a blonde, blue-eyed woman from a clan filled with blonde, blue-eyed women. Seeing as all of these characters are derived from Norse mythology, their complexion and hair color makes sense. So Marvel’s decision to cast Thompson in the role feels like a deliberate statement about what they value in their characters (at least going forward), and it’s not their race.

Waititi surely had a lot to do with the decision, as did the fact that Thompson has proven herself to be among the best actresses of her generation already in multiple roles. But whoever’s decision it was, Marvel had to approve it. They also had to approve Waititi’s conscious effort to include the aboriginal people of Australia in the production crew and cast, seeing as much of the film was made there. This isn’t Marvel’s normal way of doing things, and the willingness to allow modifications to their process is encouraging.

Marvel could keep doing the same thing and would likely make a lot of people happy and continue making a lot of money. But they are gradually changing how they function as a creative organization, and it’s showing in the quality of the movies. Critical cynicism may never go away, but if Marvel continues in this direction, it will undoubtedly decline. And we will undoubtedly win.