Pilots: Rise and For the People

Two weeks ago saw the premiere of two new shows on NBC and ABC, and although Rise, a drama about the staging of Spring Awakening in a small town high school, and For the People, a legal drama in the Shonda Rhimes tradition, are quite different shows, they shared some similar flaws in their pilot episodes. And this post will be just about the pilot episodes because I haven’t gotten around to watching the second episodes yet.

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Really, not gonna use borders or anything? Just plop some images down on top of each other?

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the first episode of Rise. It should be a simple premise–the new head of the school’s theater department (played by Josh Radnor) tries to put on Spring Awakening and meets resistance due to its controversial subjects–and yet it seems like the pilot struggles to effectively convey it. Part of that is due to the strange mixing of the show’s different elements: the assembling of the cast, the connection the teens have with the musical, and the characters’ home lives are all jumbled together with no driving plot, and it leads to all these elements feeling underbaked. I think the show would have been better off taking things more slow, spending less time developing the personal stories of its characters and making the casting of the musical happen all at once so that some characters aren’t already rehearsing before others are even involved.

The biggest illustration of this problem comes at the end of the episode, when the school’s principal tries to shut down the production and the students reject his decision by burning the props and costumes for the show they’re told to do instead. However, only one of the characters outside of Josh Radnor’s has even been shown to care about Spring Awakening, specifically, and so this moment comes across as totally unearned. And given that it’s the climax of the episode, that’s a pretty big issue.

So, yeah, I dunno. There’s some potential to Rise, and I’ll maybe give it a few more episodes to even out its storytelling, but one of the most important things a show needs to do in its first episode is to give the audience a reason to care, and this pilot was so overstuffed with premises and story seeds that it was never able to make any one of them especially compelling.

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I like how the characters get progressively more bored as you move from front to back.

Speaking of “overstuffed,” that about sums up the pilot of For the People. The show follows six new public attorneys, three in defense and three in prosecution, in the “Mother Court” in New York. It’s a great premise that allows for the show to feature both defense and prosecution in lead roles while giving its characters a home base (and while allowing for genuine uncertainty about which side will win a given case), but even with conveniently pairing of its characters into three different cases the show’s pilot feels like it has no room to breathe. As a result, one of the six main characters gets only a few minutes of screentime across the whole episode, and even the more-or-less protagonist’s case is woefully underdeveloped.

Part of that undervelopment is just from what I think is a mismanagement of the material, though. The case in question is a young man being prosecuted for trying to blow up the Statue of Liberty, except it turns out the whole plan was the product of FBI agents coaxing the man into becoming a terrorist. This brings up really meaty questions about the morality of the government doing this and the culpability the man has given that he was radicalized against the United States by the United States, and what exactly is the legality of all that, but these quandaries are shoved entirely into the background so that the case can be a proving ground for the protagonist. This is fair enough in a vacuum–it’s more important in a pilot episode to establish the characters than to engage in an interesting but inconsequential story–but if the only point of this plotline was for the sake of the protagonist’s character, then it feels like a waste to have the case be so interesting in its own right.

Otherwise, though, I think For the People shows a lot of promise. The secondmost important plotline involved the protagonist’s best friend going against her boyfriend in a case, and the tension this caused between them was interesting and engaging and the case was at the right level of development so that it felt meaningful without overshadowing the foreground plot. And while the third case was weird, feeling like it got cut off at the end of the second act, it contained good establishing moments for its protagonists. The show also contained just enough scenes outside the main cases to feel like it had a little bit of room to breathe, including one nice moment where Leonard enters Kate’s* office after winning his case and asks her why she’s not celebrating like the rest of the office, and she says “I never celebrate people going to jail.” It sounds kind of silly described like that, but it worked really well in the episode and Kate is already a standout character.

*I absolutely had to look up these characters’ names because I don’t think they even get mentioned in the show.

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Love, Simon

Simon Versus the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the book Love, Simon, is based on, was one of the first times I really felt seen in fiction. The book’s exploration of coming out in a reasonably-liberal environment, and how even in that context it’s still a fraught process, really hit home with me, and it was a major plus that it was within the context of a sweet, heartfelt story about friendship and first love. So it goes without saying that I was incredibly excited for the movie adaptation and its far superior name.

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And on pretty much every level I think the movie succeeded both as an adaptation and as a phenomenal movie in its own right. The only meaningful complaint I have is that I feel the movie is more generic than the book in its exploration of coming out and subtle homophobia. Simon Versus has a lot of good material about how frustrating it is that coming out has to be such a thing, the way it can feel so daunting to contradict people’s expectations of you, how microaggressions and heteronormativity can make you uncertain how people will actually react. And the movie delves into those topics to some extent, but partially by the nature of the medium being more about showing than telling I think some of the impact of those topics gets lost.

On the other hand, I think there are ways in which the movie improves upon, or at least adapts excellently, from the book. The loose structure of Simon thinking of three different guys in turn as being Blue works really well, and the handful of characters the movie adds fit really well into the narrative. The more I think on it the more I realize how many individual scenes in the movie are completely new, and yet the whole thing feels very cohesive.

One of those new scenes is where Simon first emails Blue (something not in the book, which starts some time after the two began corresponding) and there’s this moment in it that really stands out to me. In his email, Simon introduces himself in relatively vague terms, gets close to coming out in what’s a theoretically secure, anonymous fashion . . . but doesn’t. There’s a strong sense of tension in the scene, and obviously part of it comes from the fact that we as the audience expect to be explicitly told this information, but there’s a painful reality portrayed here in how even in the safest of environments it can still feel so daunting to come out. I was surprised to be so affected by such a seemingly-small thing, but as someone who still sometimes struggles to talk about being gay, it was really powerful to see that represented on screen in a big-budget (for a teen movie, at least), wide-release movie.

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There’s a great storytelling trick in this scene, too, which is how the audience learns that what was initially presented as opening narration is actually Simon’s first email to Blue. He opens with, “I’m just like you,” and when heard at the beginning of the movie this seems like an attempt on the filmmakers’ part to pander to the straight audience, to present a “straight, relatable” Simon before exploring his sexuality. But then after we follow Simon for a day and enter his world, it’s revealed that when Simon says “I’m just like you,” he’s speaking to another closeted teen about being gay. It’s a neat way to give the monologue a double purpose for straight and gay viewers, and it hopefully makes the straight audience empathize with Simon both times. And while I maybe would prefer a story that doesn’t even try to speak to straight viewers, I do appreciate that this story doubles as a mirror for gay people (at least those with certain experiences) while also inviting straight people to understand some of our issues.

I also love the way that the movie emphasizes, if only by omitting other parts of Simon and Blue’s correspondence from the book, the way that this is in part a story about solidarity and connection between gay people. Blue is the first person Simon comes out to, which emboldens Blue to come out to his dad, which helps Simon come out to Abby in a scene where we see that same hesitation again, but this time it’s overcome thanks to the courage Simon has gained from Blue. It’s a really powerful element to this narrative that I never noticed in the book, but really loved here.

There’s probably a lot more I could say here, especially after another viewing or two, but I’ll keep it short(ish) for now and conclude with a few random thoughts:

  • The way the movie uses Simon’s morning commute to mark the beginning, lowpoint, and end of the movie was really effective. I especially loved the overhead shots at the coffee shop drive-thru.
  • Martin says he has “screenshots” of Simon’s emails but when we see them posted, they’re freaking photos of the screen, like, what?!
  • Using the emails between Simon and Blue to reveal interiority works so well as a way to avoid straight-up narration.
  • It seriously annoys me that the writers changed it so that Simon’s family are watching The Bachelor instead of The Bachelorette like in the book, but never bothered to look up that neither air in the fall. Accuracy matters!!!

What I’m Watching: The Good Place Season 2

I wrote about The Good Place season one over the course of various posts, but the gist was pretty simple: I was totally enamored with the show. Its colorful, entertaining characters, utterly charming sense of humor, and wildly inventive premise with deep thematic material would have been enough to cement it as a high-ranking all-time favorite, but on top of that the show added a constantly-surprising serialized story that I think is one of the best stories I’ve seen in television, period. That the show accomplished that feat while being an otherwise well-crafted half-hour sitcom makes it all the more incredible.

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The Photoshop in this image is *hilariously* bad!

Enter season two, which had the heavy task of following up on such a phenomenal first season in addition to a twist that blew up the entire premise of the show. And while I think the season stumbled a bit in the middle, and had some issues inherent to the setup season one gave it, on a whole it lived up to the show’s potential.

The Good Place season two starts strong, carrying on from the cliffhanger reveal that the protagonists are actually in the bad place and being used to torture each other, followed by a reset of their memories. The exploration of how the quartet continually realize they’re in the bad place makes for an exciting first few episodes, and the easing back into a new status quo of the group teaming up with Michael to get to the good place works really well.

There is an issue already, though, which is the whole memory reset thing. While the Jason, Tahani, Chidi, and Eleanor of season two are still technically the same characters from season one, none of the things that happened in the first season inform who they are anymore, which gives a weird sense of pointlessness to all those events. Additionally, it makes for some weirdness where the show rushes through the character development that occurred in season one, so for most of season two Eleanor acts like she did at the end of season one even though she’s had a completely different set of experiences.

Also, I think the memory wiping thing kind of mucks with the whole concept of the bad place. If a person, for the sake of their eternal afterlife, isn’t considered to be the set of their linear experiences and memories, then what really is the purpose of torturing them anyway? They’re more like a plaything at that point, someone who can be continuously reset to being functionally a different person as any changes they’ve had have been erased.

However, I’m not entirely certain that the pointlessness and weirdness of how the bad place is run is an accident. The way The Good Place presents its vision of the afterlife, and the way its central premise is about four “bad” people trying to prove that they can become good and deserving of the good place, seems to imply that a critique of the entire system is in the works. Nothing in the show so far as overtly gone in that direction, but I really wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where things go.

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Anyway, with the plot stabilized a bit, the show entered a run of episodes that started out just as strong as the season’s beginning as they focused on the surprisingly meaty themes about ethics and morals the show tackles. Then, however there was a weird detour into Tahani and Jason getting together, resulting in Janet having issues because of her previous version’s love (or “love”) for Jason, resulting in her creating some sort of messed-up artificial consciousness in the form of Derek. Coming off of plotlines that dealt with the show’s overall story, this subplot felt really out of place and the stakes of it all felt totally pointless. I would have much rather seen a few more standalone episodes where the group pretend to be tortured by Vicky while teaching Michael various elements of ethics–which just goes to show that serialized plotting isn’t inherently better than episodic material.

Still, the whole Derek subplot doesn’t last very long and the show soon goes back to its story-driven approach after Shawn realizes that Michael is lying to him. This leads to possibly the best episodes in the season as the main characters have to accelerate their plan to get into the good place, leading them through a strangely 1940s-themed party in the bad place and finally to a cosmic judge played impeccably by Maya Rudolph.

Well, finally is the characters being put into what appears to be a simulation of the real world, testing their ability to become better people without knowing it’s the only thing preventing them from an eternity in the bad place. And while nothing the show could do could possibly top the incredible first season finale twist, this is nevertheless a really surprising direction for the show to take and it’s illustrative of how structurally daring The Good Place is.

I mean, like, I talked about it before, but it’s still kind of unbelievable how much The Good Place refused to rest on its already-strong, already-out-there premise. The show could have run for seasons without Eleanor ever revealing that she’s not supposed to be in the good place and instead it thew that away in just the seventh episode. Maybe even more unbelievable is that the show managed to avoid totally falling apart in its second season, with only a few missteps in a otherwise strong set of episodes. And given the strong setup for season three, it seems more likely than not that the show will really hold up as it takes us on this bizarre ride.

What I’m Watching: Grace and Frankie Season 4

So the thing is is that I really like Grace and Frankie.

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They should have an Emmys category for promo photo acting.

Like, the show could maybe do with a little bit more in the way of plot (but then I’m spoiled for plot in comedies with The Good Place being so strong on that front) and I think more actual jokes rather than just generally humorous situations could help it out. But ultimately those things don’t really matter because what makes Grace and Frankie work so well is its charming, entertaining tone and the fantastic performances from actors who all seem like they’re having a ball.

Season four opens a little shaky with a three-episode arc featuring Lisa Kudrow, who is great but also her character feels awkwardly inserted into the show and she just as awkwardly disappears as soon as she moves out of the house. And her actual plotline involving evidently-jerky stepchildren who kicked her out of her and her now-dead husband’s house has a weird, amateurishly-written tone to it and resolves itself basically as soon as it begins.

The season’s ending is also a little shaky, where a series of misfortunes that befall Grace and Frankie–which aren’t really that atypical in the context of the show and all have perfectly understandable stories behind them–culminate in the two trying to live in an assisted-living community before realizing their mistake after one episode. It’s weird, because rather than exploring the emotional issues Grace is experiencing or the general flightiness of Frankie, the show just goes “haha what if they got pressured into giving up their home?” without addressing just how absurd the idea is.

On the other hand, I really liked the way that Robert and Sol’s plotline was handled this season. It’s a believable, natural portrayal of a rocky period in a relationship that doesn’t indulge in needless contrivance or drama. I especially appreciated a small moment where Robert and Sol are in couples’ therapy and their therapist sort of pressures them into trying an open relationship. I couldn’t tell exactly how the show was framing this suggestion and was kind of uncomfortable because the therapist (played by Lorraine Toussaint, who is incredible and deserves way more than what TV has been giving her) presents it as if basically all gay men should have open relationships, and then in the next scene Sol and Robert are like “what the hell” because it’s not something they want to do. It was nice to see them react basically the same way I did since I didn’t think that’s where the show was going with it.

And before I end this post, I have to bring up how perfectly-hilarious June Diane Raphael is in this show. Brianna’s unabashed selfishness is so funny and seeing her trying to reconcile it with having a healthy relationship with Barry makes for some interesting material in this season.

Okay! That’s all I’ve got to say here.

What I’m Watching: Halt and Catch Fire Season 4

So where Halt and Catch Fire last left off was with a pretty underwhelming third season, making me curious to see if the fourth and intentionally last season would make improvements on it. And in some ways it did, and in some ways it didn’t.

(Also I actually watched this season back at the end of December but didn’t get around to writing it up till now, haha.)

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Everyone getting their power poses on!

This season continued the understated, less plot-driven style from season three. Really it went even further, because whereas season three had two long arcs across its ten episodes, season four kind of dives in and out of various plotlines that end and emerge throughout. But I think this change actually works out for the best, because it really emphasizes how the show has changed into this kind of weird, unfocused character study where the plot doesn’t truly matter even as far as the characters’ journeys go. Which is actually somewhat true to how the show has been from the start, it’s just taken to a bigger degree here.

And when that works, it really works. For instance, episode five sees various plot threads come together after Bosworth has a heart attack and tensions clash between the characters. Then the show throws a curveball in the seventh episode by having Gordon die and spends the entirety of episode eight just following the characters cleaning up his house over the course of a day. By that point the show had pretty much abandoned the idea of having a structured plot, and when the show is willing to deep dive with its characters like that it works well.

However, there is still plot in the season, and it ends up feeling totally inconsequential because the stakes just aren’t there. Which feels like a missed opportunity, because as of season two the show has this undercurrent theme about the way that computers and the internet can connect people, but rather than examine that theme through the story and relate it to the protagonists, it’s just sort of something that’s in the background, waiting to be utilized. And since the show doesn’t commit to being a full-on character drama as the characters’ personal lives don’t have enough story to them to be more than a collection of related scenes, neither side of the show’s focus feel properly developed.

Still, despite the season having persistent issues with giving a point to its content, there’s a ton of engrossing material to it, in a sort of a “the sum is less than the parts” situation. Individual scenes–like Joanie relating a spiritual experience to Donna over the phone, or Cameron and Donna fantasizing about a theoretical working relationship–are brilliantly executed and feel meaningful, even if within the context of the story they’re more or less pointless. The show also deserves props for including heavier focus on now-teenaged Joanie and Haley without them being at all uninteresting or annoying; Haley’s plotline as a techie budding lesbian was actually one of the best parts of the season.

So in conclusion . . . man. I really don’t know what to make of Halt and Catch Fire. It was wild and messy then it was actually good and then it was boring, but maybe still good and maybe, somehow, actually kind of deep? It’s a weird show, that’s for sure, but I don’t think I ever felt regret over watching it.

EmotedLlama’s 2017 in Movies

Or more accurately, “EmotedLlama’s 2017 at the Movie Theater” but that’s not the naming convention, dammit!

Anyway, here’s a rundown of the seven movies released in 2017 I saw in 2017, in chronological order. Full spoilers should be assumed.

Hidden Figures

This movie was utterly fantastic. On a fundamental level it’s a standard inspirational biopic, but by focusing on, well, hidden figures of American history, and doing it with just impeccable execution, Hidden Figures denies being reduced in that way. It’s hard for me to say a lot more about it since a lot of the depth to the movie is on topics I’m not well-suited to write about, especially since my memory of the movie is a little iffy after a year, but suffice to say that, well, this movie is great. Also, the performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae are just perfect.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

I really enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy the first time I watched it, but on rewatch found it kind of stale, so I wasn’t entirely sure how much I’d like this one. And . . . it was fine. There were some good gags (<3 baby groot), and elements of the movie’s thematic material about family worked, but it felt like for every good moment there were twice as many moments where characters were just yelling at each other for no real reason.

There’s also a kind of unsettling tonal dissonance throughout the movie, like how the crew that stand up for Yondu are vented out the airlock and it’s meant to be a sobering moment, but when Yondu kills the crew who mutinied against him its a fun action sequence. Like, apparently murder is bad when it’s sort-of good guys, but when it’s sort-of bad guys it’s exciting! Another example is the character of Mantis, who on paper is a tragic victim of emotional abuse and educational neglect, but these things are played for laughs rather than examined in any meaningful way.

Additionally, the movie suffers from not really having a plot outside of the stuff with Yondu in the second act, which might work if the character interactions were more meaningful but they’re really not that exceptional. The relationship between Gamora and Nebula is somewhat interesting, if only because “adopted sisters who were forced to fight each other by their supervillain dad” is such a unique story, but then Peter Quill’s entire arc is one we’ve seen time and again in fiction and the wedge it drives between him and Gamora is super rote.

Wonder Woman

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I mean. I’m not sure there’s much to be said about Wonder Woman that hasn’t been said already. It’s just an incredible movie and in a landscape of Marvel’s experimentation, Fox’s whatever-the-fuck-they’re-doing, and DC’s Zack Snyder obsession, Wonder Woman stands out as the first superhero movie in a long time to portray a traditional style of superhero. Diana Prince as a character is a beacon of hope, of selflessness, of fighting for what’s right and the greater good, to the point where her enemy is literally a personification of the concept of war. It’s really meaningful to see a hero like that in today’s cultural landscape, and I’m thankful that she has such a strong movie to back her up.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

After seeing this movie I thought about doing a post comparing the ways it, Wonder Woman, and Guardians Vol. 2 portray superheroes, because it’s a really fascinating contrast. Where Guardians is about messy people trying their best and Wonder Woman is about a classic-type hero, Spider-Man: Homecoming shows us a young kid who kind of wants to be a Wonder Woman-like hero, but is held back by his inexperience and immaturity, not to mention Tony Stark’s horrible mentorship. It makes for an enjoyable arc for Peter Parker, and the relationship he has with Tony Stark is fascinating to watch.

And outside of all that, this is just a really fun movie. The high school trappings are a smart storytelling move and help make for a story that gets closer to exploring what life for the everyday person is like in the MCU than any of the franchise’s other entries. There was some stuff I didn’t like as much, such as the way the movie pokes fun at some if its genre conventions (like Peter awkwardly changing into his costume or being unable to web in a park) while holding onto others (how in the heck did he get away from that ferry without being caught?), but on a whole it’s a well-crafted movie with a lot to enjoy.

Atomic Blonde

There’s not a lot going on in this movie (I left to use the bathroom at one point and didn’t even feel I’d missed anything), and it uses that simplicity and singular drive to tell a nerve-wracking, intensely-thrilling story with knockout action sequences and a brutal, but never sadistic, tone that just rules. I don’t think anything else needs to be said by me.

Thor: Ragnarok

This was really the year of fun Marvel movies, and this was definitely the most fun of the three. I have my quibbles–until Thor and Loki meet with Odin the movie keeps setting up dramatic moments and then diffusing them with silly humor in a way I found annoying, and the shuffling off the the series’ previous female characters is really questionable–but those aside, this is a fun, exciting movie with a pretty good use of humor and some interesting thematic material about colonialism and whitewashing of the past.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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This. Movie. Was. Phenomenal!

Okay. First: The Last Jedi just would not stop producing incredible, destined-to-be-iconic moments. Leia’s spacewalk! The throne room fight! Holdo’s lightspeed sacrifice! Luke’s standoff with Kylo! And that’s without all of the other action set pieces which were thrilling and visually stunning and just a joy to behold.

Second: the thematic material! I’ve seen people deride the Canto Bight sequence for slowing the pace of the movie, but the exploration of a corrupt ruling class exploiting the working class was awesome to see and I felt it meaningfully expanded the Star Wars universe. (I didn’t have issues with the movie’s pacing, though, so maybe I’m extra forgiving.) And I’ve seen it pointed out how DJ’s character even criticizes the “both sides are bad” mindset by showing him siding with the unquestionable bad guys out of opportunism, which is an interesting interpretation.

Then there’s the message about failure, which the movie builds into every one of its plotlines in a really great way. Luke’s failure to keep Kylo Ren from the dark side and Rey’s subsequent failure to turn Kylo to the light side, Rose and Finn’s failure to disrupt the First Order’s tracking, Poe’s failure to subvert Holdo’s plans, the Resistance’s failure to escape the First Order intact. The ultimate message of all this, though, is that just because the heroes failed and made mistakes doesn’t mean they’ve lost and can’t move on. It’s not a hugely original or complex theme, but for a Star Wars movie it’s pretty robust.

Third and final: the character arcs. I loved the continued evolution of Finn from The Force Awakens as someone who originally just wants to get away from the First Order/Resistance conflict, then gets involved to save Rey, then comes to see the value of the Resistance and the just fight they’re fighting and is willing to sacrifice himself to try to save them. (DJ is used neatly as a foil here, presenting pessimistic ideas that Finn ultimately rejects.) I also love the way that Rose saving him isn’t just a contrivance to keep him from dying, but fits with her grief after her sister’s sacrifice and Poe’s arc of learning that risky, showy plans aren’t always the best.

Speaking of Poe’s arc, it’s where I’m a little iffy on the movie. I think some of it works, but the contrivance around Holdo not telling him the evacuation plan significantly weakens the plotline. Not only does it really not make sense for Holdo to not make everyone aware that they’re going to evacuate the ship (I’d think at least her bridge crew would be aware, yet Billie Lourd’s character continuously helps Poe), but the fact that she withholds that information from Poe makes his decision to subvert her command seem like not such a bad idea. Additionally, the initiation of his arc is in the movie’s opening sequence where he leads a strike against a First Order ship against Leia’s orders–except whether his decision was a good one is pretty debatable, and so I’m left ultimately wondering just how much Poe actually needed to change.

There’s also the subtext of his arc, which I’ve seen pointed out is questionable given that Oscar Isaac is a Latino man and the movie portrays his character as hot-headed and reckless. (I’m not sure I’d use exactly those words but I’d need to rewatch to really disagree.) Of course, there’s also subtext in his plotline about men needing to listen to women, so it’s more complicated than just “the only subtext present is bad,” but it is an issue.

Finally there’s Rey’s arc, which I think I need to see the movie again to fully form an opinion on. Her story is split between her relationships with Luke, Kylo, and her heritage in a way that makes untangling those elements from each other a little complicated. I’m tentatively willing to say, however, that I don’t think Rey has an arc across the movie so much as she takes actions and learns things, which isn’t necessarily bad–I don’t think Moana really has an arc in Moana, and that’s not to the detriment of the movie–but makes her feel a little less dynamic in the movie compared to Finn and Poe. Still, it’s something I need to think more on and get another viewing in to really get my head around it.

But overall, as I said: this movie is amazing! I need more time to decide if I prefer it to The Force Awakens overall, but these two movies are definitely my favorite Star Wars movies regardless of their ordering compared to each other.

EmotedLlama’s 2017 in Music

This year I’m just going to stick to a “top five albums” list, which works out since that’s as many albums I listened to that came out this year. (Well, I gave Lorde’s Melodrama a few listens but it doesn’t do much for me.) Actually I’m not even going to rank them, because I think they’re all solid albums with their own strengths and weaknesses. So, to start:

Everything Now by Arcade Fire

There’s . . . a lot going on with this album. The title track and its two-part “Infinite Content” argue for an album about consumerism and the information overload of the information age, but the rest of the album doesn’t really follow that theme. And that’s for the best, really, as while “Everything Now” works well enough, both “Infinite Content”s are laughably bad, literally just the lines “infinite content/we’re infinitely content” over and over again. In contrast, the rest of the album moves in subtler, less rotely-judgmental spaces, painting a picture of general unease and existential melancholy that feels much more fully-fleshed. Like, damn if I know exactly what “Put Your Money On Me” is about, but it’s easily one of my top Arcade Fire tracks across their five albums, and that lyrical opacity really works in its favor as Arcade Fire tends to be its worst when it’s at its most direct.

Something to Tell You by HAIM

This is just a really solid, late-’90s/early-’00s-tinged modern rock album. The influences are all over the place–from the Christine McVie-penned Fleetwod Mac soundalike “Nothing’s Wrong,” to the R&B sensibility of “Walking Away,” to the grungy closer “Night So Long”–but all feel masterfully synthesized into an album that feels at once contemporary and retro in a way that works out to roughly timeless. On the other hand, some of the melodies here just don’t work for me that much, which is compounded by the repetitious nature of the choruses on practically every track. “Little of Your Love,” for instance, pretty much just repeats the same hook at the halfway mark, making it feel like it’s in outro-mode for nearly two minutes. Nevertheless, standouts like “You Never Knew” and “Right Now” easily justify a few lesser tracks.

Truth is a Beautiful Thing by London Grammar

Truth is a Beautiful Thing stands out as the only album here that doesn’t have a track on it I don’t care for (ignoring the special edition bonus tracks). London Grammar take the simple production from their debut album and ramp it up here to create something far more sweeping and dramatic, a direction perfectly suited to the band’s style and Hannah Reid’s ethereal vocals. I don’t really have anything else to say about this one, because it’s really just an incredibly solid album.

Now by Shania Twain

I’ve been revisiting Shania Twain’s back catalog this year and it’s been astounding to realize just how many perfect melodic compositions she released over just three albums. This gave me high hopes for her comeback album, Now, and . . . it sort of delivered. On a whole it’s a lot less catchy, a lot less upbeat, and so isn’t very reminiscent of what made classic Shania Twain so phenomenal. But it does still have a lot of solid tracks, and honestly some of the better ones are the ones that diverge the most from her classic sound–the swampy intensity of “Roll Me On The River,” the contemporary pop sound of “Poor Me,” the jazzy “We Got Something They Don’t.” Ultimately, none of the tracks live up to the standards set by her classic singles, but as an album I think it’s on par with those in her past, as some of the album tracks from her previous albums are pretty forgettable.

Beautiful Trauma by P!nk

This was definitely the biggest surprise of the year. P!nk really wasn’t on my radar until she released the lead single for this album, “What About Us,” which I really enjoyed and when I checked out the rest of the album I found I liked it all as well. There’s the sort of stuff I’d expect from P!nk here–sort of abrasive pop with a moderately hard edge–but what really astounded me on Beautiful Trauma is the strong through line of singer-songwriter styling, leading to stellar songs like “Barbies,” “Where We Go,” or “Better Life.” The absolute standout track, meanwhile, “I Am Here,” mixes gospel backup singing with thumping folk-rock instrumentals for one of the most emotionally impactful songs of the year. There are some songs here that I don’t think work as well as the others–“Secrets,” for instance, feels a little on-the-nose lyrically–but in all this is a remarkably good album.