Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Pop Culture Archive

Thursday

7

January 2021

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Ham on Rye is an eccentric, contemplative high school narrative

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High school life is not at all like a John Hughes movie. The “a-ha” moment where everything comes into place just isn’t a good fit for the realities of that time in our lives. Reality is messy, ever-changing, and uncertain.

Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye takes an unconventional approach to the high school narrator. The film uses a cast of mostly non-professional actors and a nonlinear plot to capture the waning days of a group’s high school existence. Taormina constantly presents surreal sequences that project almost like an acid trip, as if someone set out to make a movie and forgot about it while leaving the camera rolling.

What works best about Ham on Rye is its keen understanding of cringe. High school is not romantic. High school is awkward. Kids dance in delis because they have nowhere else to go. Young people often want to set out and grab the world by its horns, but in high school there aren’t really a ton of horns to grab.

Too often film sets out to project a deeper meaning onto this communal periods of one’s life. Ham on Rye understands the messy nature of adolescence, capturing this awkward stage at face value with a wide smile on its face. People who peak in high school are thought to be losers. Nobody peaks in Ham on Rye.

There is a certain degree of inaccessibility to the film, perhaps limiting its appeal to diehard cinephiles. If Taormina has a deeper meaning to his film, he sure keeps his cards close. With a runtime of just under 90 minutes, the film hardly overstays its welcome even as the novelty starts to wear off.

Few films capture the essence of high school quite as effectively as Ham on Rye, which refuses to paint this era as anything but awkward and absurd. The cinematography is stunning, often contrasting with the mundane nature of its subjects. That’s okay. Sometimes a piece of garbage on the floor is in fact worth looking at.

Ham on Rye is hardly a film for the masses, but it’s a lovely ride. Plenty of people wish their teenage years were just like a John Hughes movie. Life doesn’t work that way. Basking in its weirdness, Ham on Rye hits the mark better than most.

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Tuesday

5

January 2021

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The Mandalorian Season 2 Review

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Season two of The Mandalorian began with a fairly daunting task. The show built an enormous amount of goodwill during its freshman effort for crafting a narrative that carried the aura of being far-removed from the rest of Star Wars lore, even if the constant, subtle Easter Eggs tended to suggest otherwise. As the sequel series faltered, The Mandalorian suggested that the future of the franchise rested in standalone storytelling.

All the recent announcements of close to a dozen new Star Wars series throw a wrench in this whole thesis, but it’s clear that The Mandalorian had been inching toward this destination for a long time. The chance to feature series favorites such as Bo-Katan, Boba Fett, and Ahsoka Tano transformed what was once predominantly an episodic meme-factory for the hijinks of an adorable puppet and his adopted father. Season two will be defined as the point where The Mandalorian stopped explicitly being “The Baby Yoda Show,” and not just strictly because the cute little fella finally got a proper name.

The perfectly executed season finale should rightfully spark melancholic feelings toward the change in status quo for The Mandalorian, which now finds itself firmly entrenched in Skywalker lore. Season two featured plenty of episodes defined by their self-contained adventures, from the slaying of a Krayt dragon to the head-scratching detour to ice-spider planet. Individual victories from episode to episode are bound to take a backseat to big mic-drop moments.

The Mandalorian built an enormous amount of goodwill for moments crafted by its own characters. For a man who rarely shows his face, Pedro Pascal brought an impressive depth of emotional range to Din Djarin, subtly setting up the tear-jerking departure of the final episode, where he bucked his traditions and removed his helmet. Those are the kind of set-ups that The Mandalorian excels at, but it’s harder to recreate that dynamic when the complications of decades of fan-nostalgia begin to occupy the same space.

Season two benefited from an untapped reservoir of guest stars, rewarding longtime fans for their dedication in following the animated series, comics, and broader Expanded Universe. Soon there will be other places to find those highs, including The Book of Boba, which will air at the end of this year. The Mandalorian will hardly be the only game in town.

Show creator Jon Favreau improved upon season one in practically every way imaginable. The episodes felt more vital, even as they relied upon their own self-contained adventures. The show eased up on its love of rocky desert planets. Grogu didn’t lean too hard into his status as a walking meme, aside from perhaps the moment where he decided he’d practice the Force by swiping blue macarons. For all the moments in season one that felt like the show was dragging its feet, season two moved the ball forward in practically every episode.

Season two built on the strong foundation of the first while expanding the narrative to define The Mandalorian’s place in Star Wars lore. Favreau accomplished all of this while not losing sight of his two heroes that made all the magic in the first place. A cameo from Star Wars’ original hero may be the most noteworthy thing to come out of the show, but The Mandalorian ensured that the franchise won’t be defined by its first family.

It is weird think that The Mandalorian may have already established its legacy two seasons in. The streaming world it helped established will look very different when the show returns, presumably in 2022. It may be a bit overblown to say that The Mandalorian “saved” Star Wars, a billion dollar entity that can absorb some lackluster installments.

The urge to reach that conclusion comes from a fairly natural point. There may come a day when the show loses itself in endless callbacks, a fate suffered by the sequel trilogy. The Mandalorian is great TV. That’s pretty much the only thing that needs to matter.

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Monday

28

December 2020

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Soul is a touching film that doesn’t tug too hard on the heartstrings

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Pixar has a knack for tackling the existential. Most of the themes present in Soul are bound to be foreign to the younger members of the audience who haven’t necessarily had to grapple with grown-ups struggles yet. Many have tried to figure out “the meaning of life,” with varying degrees of success toward a somewhat unanswerable question.

The film follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz musician who works as a middle school music teacher to support himself. Teaching full-time presents stability that musicians rarely enjoy, but Joe isn’t quite ready to give up on his true passion. Consumed with the prospects of playing a gig with the popular Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), Joe accidentally falls down a manhole, sending him to the “great beyond.”

An effort to cheat death lands him in the realm of pre-existence, where spirits named Jerry mentor young souls before they head off to the world for their own adventures. One soul, 22 (Tina Fey), doesn’t see the point in the great adventure called life. An effort to get to the bottom of this great mystery creates a bit of a Freaky Friday moment, leading to a fun and thoughtful adventure for Joe and 22.

Foxx and Fey have quick chemistry, a rapport designed to carry just about any feature. Pixar’s always-spectacular animation eases the burden on the leads, crafting a delightful narrative that breezes through its 90-minute runtime. Soul has one of the most satisfying third acts of any Pixar feature.

There are morals in the film that have been pretty thoroughly explored by other Disney films. The overall messaging might be a little lost on younger kids, passion being a concept that takes maturity to appreciate. Soul manages to speak to its broad demographics simultaneously, never letting weighty themes drag down its engaging narrative.

Disney loves talking about death, scarring countless children by killing off its protagonists’ parents. For a film that partially takes place in the afterlife, Soul doesn’t really concern itself with death. Instead, the film offers a celebration of life that doesn’t tug too hard on the heartstrings. It’s weird to be moved by a Pixar film that doesn’t really try to make you cry.

Pixar has aimed for more ambitious goals than Soul, but the first-rate nature of its craftmanship ensures that this film belongs in its upper echelon. Soul is a thoroughly satisfying narrative. Sometimes the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented to make for a worthwhile experience.

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Saturday

26

December 2020

1

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Wonder Woman 1984 is a complete mess

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Superhero franchises often peak with their sophomore installments. Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United, Batman Returns, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeded at least in part through an understanding of the opportunity that sequels push harder into their respective ethos, without the weight of origin stories. The stage is already set up.

Wonder Woman 1984 never really understands what it wants to do with its title hero. Diana is adrift in the 1980s, still mourning Steve Trevor’s death, decades earlier. Grief is a natural human emotion. Superheroes are supposed to be relatable, but there’s something inherently jarring about the idea that an ageless warrior would spend close to seventy years upset about one man.

The film centers itself in Diana’s professional life, working as an anthropologist in Washington D.C. Diana still masquerades as Wonder Woman, mostly handling small-scale issues like mall crimes, taking great care to destroy any security camera footage that would give her maskless face away. Professionally, she seems to be doing okay, albeit dragging around the baggage of a normal human lifespan’s worth of grief.

Kristen Wiig largely carries the film as Diana’s coworker Barbara Minerva, Wonder Woman’s arch-nemesis Cheetah. Barbara is insecure, desperate to carry herself with half the poise of Diana, a dynamic that forces the viewer to see the sullen title hero as a figure worthy of envy. That lust serves as the catalyst for the whole film, manifested through a stone recovered from a foiled robbery.

The “dreamstone” is the object of intense desire for Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a made-for-TV businessman armed with a war-chest of Reaganomics cliches and thinly-veiled Donald Trump impressions. Pascal is fun, working great opposite Wiig. Director Patty Jenkins provides plenty of scenes to flesh out Lord beyond his Wall Street caricature.

At a certain point, the scenes fully fleshing out Minerva and Lord become a bit excessive, exacerbated by Jenkins’ uncertainty with regard to Diana. Wonder Woman 1984 belongs less to Wonder Woman as a character than it does to Wonder Woman, its predecessor. This is a 151-minute-long feature designed to help its lead get over the events of the past film, close to seventy years after the fact.

The 80s setting serves no function other than to evoke nostalgia for shopping malls and brightly colored leotards. There is no point where the film tries to justify its time period, increasingly awkward as the narrative lugs around the first film like an anchor weighing the whole experience down. There are too many scenes that don’t serve any broader purpose, which might have been okay if it wasn’t so boring most of the time.

Chris Pine makes for a very good Steve Trevor. This notion should in theory operate independent of the question of whether or not this long-dead love interest should play a major role in a sequel, where he is still very much deceased. Trevor isn’t just out of place here. His presence practically sinks the entire movie.

Worst of all, Jenkins could’ve essentially cut out all of Trevor’s scenes without fundamentally changing the narrative. Such a decision would’ve produced a much more palatable runtime, a sorry state of affairs for a film that pretty much solely relies on its two villains for entertaining moments. Gal Gadot is pretty adrift throughout the whole ordeal, shrugging her shoulders at the notion that this should be her movie.

Wonder Woman is the most iconic female superhero of all time. Jenkins kneecapped her feminist hero by forcing Diana to channel every emotion through the prism of a man. The movie never really decides on a path for Diana, despite a lengthy flashback opener ostensibly designed to set those intentions.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a meandering slog that evokes little other than pity for its title hero. Diana deserves better than this too-often joyless mess of a narrative. One of the most disappointing superhero movies of all time. There is nothing inspirational here.

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Saturday

19

December 2020

1

COMMENTS

The Mandalorian Season 2 Review: Chapter 16

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As a franchise, there’s little Star Wars loves more than the past. Two of the three entries in the sequel series existed primarily as shrines to nostalgia, while its middle installment sparked endless controversy for daring to engage the idea that maybe we should, “let the past die.” The Mandalorian has mostly charted its own course, albeit carrying plenty of crowd-pleasing Easter eggs along the way.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a current work possessing deep reverence for its broader lore, as the season two finale proved. Great storytelling can be powerfully enhanced by interweaving the present in with the characters fans have grown to love. Luke Skywalker never looked more powerful than when he was mowing down Terminator-esque Dark troopers one by one, delivering on a wish fans have clamored for since Return of the Jedi.

This episode combined all the best elements of the show, a near perfect finale. The show’s supporting bench was mostly all-hands on deck to rescue Grogu from Moff Gideon’s light cruiser. Dr. Pershing is a fairly compelling tertiary character, though his quick defection to Team Mando seemed a bit rushed.

The stand-off on the Imperial Shuttle was perhaps the episode’s lone clunky bit of fan service, a back-and-forth over the ethics of blowing up Death Stars ripped straight out of Clerks. A chief complaint of the Skywalker Saga as a whole has been how small the galaxy seems with everyone knowing every else. Between the shuttle and Bo-Katan’s instant familiarity with Boba Fett, it felt like this episode was crafting an intimate family drama rather than a giant space epic.

The action sequences were predictably phenomenal, giving the female members of the team plenty of chances to shine while only just barely dipping into the cringey “girl power” energy that Avengers: Endgame consumed to excess. The Dark troopers were appropriately menacing, even in scenarios where they didn’t really get a chance to wield their full power. Mando destroying one with his flamethrower might suggest that they’re easier to beat than the show lets on, but it’s understandable that none of Mando’s crew didn’t want to test this theory too much.

Moff Gideon has been a pretty menacing figure despite only making sporadic appearances. Giancarlo Esposito has a gift for playing characters who display a transactional sense of villainy. For a second, he really makes you believe that he’s simply okay letting Mando and Grogu walk away, before swinging the Darksaber right at Mando’s back.

The fight itself was pretty solid, though the sight of an old man parrying with an armored bounty hunter, albeit one who was recently bashed in the head, ran the risk of carrying on past the point of plausibility. Gideon seemed like a likely candidate to not make it past the episode, though Chapter 16 opted not to add to the show’s body count. All hands are still on deck for an eventual war on Mandalore, as the show is increasingly hinting will be its focus for next season.

Luke’s entire sequence was perfect, a moving tribute to the franchise’s most beloved hero. The use of body-double Max Lloyd-Jones mostly worked, though the dialogue portion was a bit clunky. The sight of R2-D2 brought tears to my eyes, a beloved character who was woefully neglected by the sequel trilogy.

Luke never got a chance to bask in the limelight after beating the Empire. Regardless of how you feel about his well-crafted arc in The Last Jedi, it is a shame that Star Wars turned the page on Jedi Master Skywalker without giving Hamill a chance to enjoy Luke in his prime. This episode was a great tribute for those of us who lament the end of the Expanded Universe.

The most impressive thing about the last ten minutes of the episode was the way it managed to give simultaneously both Mando and Luke their tearjerker moments. Mando taking his helmet off to say goodbye to his adopted son had been hinted at, but it played so powerfully here. Grogu not wanting to leave was perfectly complemented by R2’s exuberance at seeing the young child.

The whole scene worked on so many levels, combining Star Wars’ vast lore with the affection we’ve built for our current cast of characters. The franchise finally used nostalgia not as a crutch, but as a seasoning for its carefully curated buffet of emotion. It’s hard to think that The Mandalorian will sideline its breakout character for very long, but the show succeeded in presenting that as a possibility.

“The Rescue” represented the finest chapter in the Star Wars saga since The Empire Strikes Back. The episode utilized every single moment to its advantage, both in the present and with regard to planning for next season. Both Mando and Grogu will have their hands full with new adventures next year, giving comfort to those who might still be sobbing over the idea of their separation. It’s hard to think of a better way to end this era of The Mandalorian.

If that wasn’t enough, we were treated to an excellent post-credits scene where Boba Fett and Fennec paid a visit to Fett’s old friend Bib Fortuna at Jabba’s Palace. Fett hasn’t had nearly enough chances to shine since his introduction, playing bit roles in the past two episodes. Looks like a spin-off is on the horizon, along with all the other Star Wars projects in development.

Quick programming note. We will return with a review of the season as a whole. Be sure to check out Estradiol Illusions’ weekly podcast recaps. Thank you so much for following along with us every week! Happy Life Day.

 

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Thursday

17

December 2020

1

COMMENTS

Happiest Season is a regressive disaster of a holiday narrative

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Coming out is an almost universally brutal aspect of the LGBTQ experience. Even under the best of circumstances, the process is bound to be full of cringe and bent-up anxiety. A byproduct of the efforts at broader LGBTQ visibility has been the de-stigmatization of being gay as a whole, painting apocalyptic reactions toward coming out with a rightful shade of taboo.

Happiest Season presents its narrative in a world where being gay is still something to be embarrassed or ashamed about. Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis) pushes her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) back into the closet for a visit to her family, after lying to Abby about having come out to them already. Not only are Harper’s parents very conservative, her father Ted (Victor Garber) is running for mayor.

This is the world that Happiest Season shapes for its spin on classic holiday tropes. Dick Cheney was elected vice president in the 2000 election on a Republican ticket while having a gay daughter. Twenty years later, the same dynamic apparently appears to be a subject of great scandal for a small-town mayoral contest. The film doesn’t really explicitly state its location, but it’s hard to imagine where, or frankly when, this mess is supposed to take place.

Harper’s parents’ issues aren’t simply limited to homophobia either. Her sister Jane (Mary Holland) is treated like a pariah, a subject of immense, open disdain and mockery from the rest of her family. Harper’s mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) is comically rude, abusing Abby for being an orphan right as they walk through the door. As if that wasn’t enough, Sloane (Allison Brie) makes her introduction late in the first act, a formerly successful lawyer in the middle of a crumbling marriage.

The Caldwell family are horrible people with seemingly no redeeming qualities. Director Clea DuVall, who also co-wrote the screenplay, throws them out there like we’re supposed to laugh along with these truly loathsome individuals. The dialogue is often pretty terrible. The cast, which also includes Dan Levy and Aubrey Plaza, is way overqualified for this disaster, unable to make much out of the sloppy writing.

The real rot at the core of Happiest Season lies with Harper. We’re never really given a solid reason for why she feels it’s okay to push the love of her life back into the closet, an immensely inappropriate proposition in the modern era. Not only does the film push an unhealthy dynamic on gay people, it never really tries to justify itself. Davis gives a pretty wooden performance, unable to elevate her character beyond the laughably stale tropes.

DuVall does try and grapple with this dynamic late in the third act, but by then it’s well past the point of redemption. There are too many feints toward subplots that don’t really go anywhere, squandering time that could have been spent salvaging the Caldwell family. Family is complicated, but this family is so deplorable beyond their homophobia that it’s hard to care much about resolution. These aren’t the kinds of issues that can be solved in a single holiday.

LGBTQ people don’t have a ton of holiday staples to call our own. In some ways, Happiest Season doesn’t really fit this category either. It features gay people in lead roles, but this film caters almost exclusively to the guilt that heterosexual families might feel for their past behavior toward gay children. Everyone can take solace in the fact that they aren’t as mean as the Caldwell’s, but that’s not a very good message to send regarding inclusivity.

Happiest Season is a sloppy, regressive mess full of one-note characters. This films sends all the wrong messages about tolerance in the year 2020. A lot of talent were involved in the making of this film. What a shame.

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Saturday

12

December 2020

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The Mandalorian Season 2 Review: Chapter 15

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This season of The Mandalorian has done a superb job with its big moments. Ahsoka Tano, Boba Fett, and Bo-Katan all shined in their debut episodes. As a medium, television rarely relied so heavily on the giant splashes before the streaming era. The quieter moments need to count too.

The Mandalorian is not very good at stopping to take a breath in order to process its events. Mando has assembled an impressive team of Fett, Fennec, and Cara Dune to help him rescue Grogu, but as an episode, “The Believer” cares very little for any of these people. Chapter 15 belonged to Migs Mayfeld.

For a show starring a puppet and a bounty hunter who never removes his helmet, The Mandalorian has done a fairly decent job building up its supporting bench. Bill Burr shined in last season’s sixth episode as the backstabbing former Imperial sharpshooter. Now imprisoned, Mando needs his services to figure out the location of Moff Gideon, whose imprisonment of Grogu apparently prevented him from making an appearance this episode.

The whole Morak quest was a fairly paint-by-numbers undercover mission. The Mandalorian often leans heavily into Western tropes, but here it was borrowing heavily from the spy/adventure shows that once populated the network TV landscape. It’s fun without being particularly inventive or ambitious.

Most jarring in the episode was the sequence after the undercover Mando and Mayfeld fought off a raiding party, only to be greeted with a chorus of applause from Stormtroopers. We rarely see Stormtroopers winning anything, let alone actually hitting a single target. If anything else, it was entertaining to watch.

Burr did a great job with fairly mundane material. His commentary on the geopolitics of Morak was a clear substitute for American interventionism abroad in places like Vietnam and Iraq, fairly out of place in the Star Wars universe. As the audience, we can follow along with his broad points as they relate to our reality, but that isn’t a dynamic Star Wars has ever really shown to us. The Empire and the New Republic are not really two sides of the same coin.

The dramatic tension in this episode mostly stemmed from Mando being forced to remove his beskar helmet. As soon as the Stormtrooper helmet went on, it became clear that we’d probably get an appearance from Pedro Pascal, mustache and all. Bo-Katan’s statements on Mando’s sect of Mandalorian being extremists set this all up quite well.

Pascal handled the dynamic well, constantly looking like a fish out of water without his security blanket. It’s not a super compelling conflict, since I imagine most of the audience would rather see Pascal on a regular basis rather than stare at Mando’s expressionless helmet. Like Mayfeld’s pontifications on relativism, much of this drama felt like going through the motions.

Mayfeld gets redemption as a character through his ill-advised rant to his former commanding officer Valin Hess (Richard Brake, who’s familiar to Game of Thrones fans as the first Night King). The whole sequence was obviously made to set up his release at the end of the episode, while maybe also serving to show him as not a bad guy. It’s entertaining while also being just a tad too predictable.

The action was mostly good, even if the sight of numerous Imperial officers running to their immediate deaths in the mess room hallway seemed a tad ridiculous. Cara and Fennec had some moments, but Fett was left with not enough to do. I guess we can blame that on some stage fright that some Imperials might recognize his face after his father served as the template for the entire Clone army.

This season has largely been about Mando coming into his own as a father. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the show wanted to have Mando send a threatening message to Gideon. It did feel rather out of place for him as a character though, needlessly showing his cards.

While a bit lazy in its execution, Chapter 15 served as an effective set-up for the season finale. Burr got his moments to shine, but with a 38-minute runtime, it’s hard to make the case for why no one else could have had a moment as well. Fett superfans were bound to be disappointed by the sidelining of the original helmeted bounty hunter. The Mandalorian needs to do a better job with simply taking a breath every once in a while.

For more Mandalorian coverage, check out Estradiol Illusions’ weekly recaps 

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Tuesday

1

December 2020

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Dear Santa offers a touching perspective on the work that goes into bringing holiday cheer

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Each year, millions of American children write letters to Santa that make their way through the Postal Service system. The USPS’ Operation Santa is designed to enlist helper elves to ease Santa’s workload, as the North Pole tends to get pretty hectic this time of year. Director Dana Nachman’s new documentary Dear Santa chronicles the journey of this gargantuan process.

The film provides a pretty broad perspective on the scale of the operation, showcasing how the adult elves do their best to navigate the hordes of letters that come their way. Nachman mostly centers the film around Operation Santa’s efforts in New York and Chicago, though West Coast regions such as Fresno, California and parts of Arizona help paint a full picture of the amount of work that goes into making kids’ dreams come true. For many families in need, a letter to Santa represents the best chance at seeing one’s holiday wishes fulfilled.

Though the narrative bounces around quite a bit, Nachman does single out a few storylines to anchor the film’s broader objective. One child desperately wants a rabbit. Another merely wants to take a ride in a limo after seeing them in films. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like for a family to ask for a pet for the holidays, Dear Santa has you covered.

The holiday season can be an awkward time for many, particularly the LGBTQ community. Dear Santa is an inclusive film perfect for all ages, especially the little tots who go to bed eager for a visit from the big man himself. Parents need not worry about a certain secret being revealed.

The holiday genre places a high emphasis on comfort narratives. At times, Dear Santa is a bit of a tearjerker, spotlighting families who lost everything in California wildfires or Hurricane Sandy back in 2012. December has a way of bringing people together, something that the film achieves quite effectively.

The one complaint with Dear Santa lies with its runtime. Eighty minutes is a lot of time to tell a story, but the feel-good energy spreads itself a bit thin in the absence of conflict. Few would expect a film like this to play hard for dramatic suspense and its modest efforts on that front don’t pack a ton of punch. Like many in the genre, a happy ending is pretty inevitable.

Dear Santa is a very satisfying holiday narrative, one that earns its box of tissues next to the remote. Nachman has a keen ability to highlight the real heroes of the holidays, the people who tirelessly work to provide children a chance to smile. A perfect encapsulation of the spirit of this time of year.

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Saturday

28

November 2020

1

COMMENTS

The Mandalorian Season 2 Review: Chapter 13

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There is a reason none of the Marvel characters from the Netflix series made appearances in Avengers: Endgame, a film with a finale designed to cap off a historic era in film connectivity. Popular as they may be, the inclusion of such characters presents some problems for a global audience that may have no idea who these people are. The hardcore fans are left with a natural degree of wanting for scenarios that would have been so incredible to see up on the big screen.

Ahsoka Tano is the breakout star of the popular animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, the former of which carried the torch for the fandom as it transitioned from the post-Revenge of the Sith Lucas era to its current home at Disney. There was a period of time where Ahsoka Tano was the best Star Wars creation of the 21st century, a sentiment countless Clone Wars fans undoubtedly still hold.

Tano’s appearance in The Mandalorian has been rumored since the show’s inception, a naturally tantalizing prospect for many. The logistics of her inclusion presented the showrunners with some of the same hurdles that the Marvel universe experienced with how to include a popular character in a global phenomenon that has plenty of fans who have never heard of her. Thankfully, Star Wars vet Dave Filoni rose to the task with near flawless execution.

The arrival on Corvus gave The Mandalorian a much needed reprieve from the piles of rocks on Tatooine and Nevarro, but also a chance to move the narrative forward in a game-changing fashion. This season has been about Mando delivering Baby Yoda to a Jedi. Given the show’s often glacier-slow pacing and affection for filler subplots, it might have been reasonable to assume that this might happen sometime at the end of the season.

Instead, we get a fan favorite character and a name for the Child. Grogu is not a good name. Yoda and Yaddle (the latter of which’s legacy was apparently forgotten by Tano, who presumably arrived at the Jedi Temple a little while after her death) are much better names. Grogu is the kind of cringy name that flies in the face of how adorable this fella is.

The action sequences were predictable phenomenal. Mando’s quest to find Ahsoka at the behest of former Empire leader Morgan Elsbeth was a tad perfunctory, but this episode had too much going on to be bogged down in narrative mechanics.

The audience could be forgiven for some eye-rolls at the timeline that Ahsoka provided for Grogu’s residence at the Jedi Temple. The little guy seems to understand Mando better this season, but he’s still basically a baby with a one-track mind for snacks. Are we really supposed to believe that he was trained at the Temple during the era of the prequels when he was 1/5th his current age?

Obviously Ahsoka is not going to train Grogu. That would require The Mandalorian to either lose its best asset or for the show to do a sharp pivot away from its title character. Neither Ahsoka nor Grogu popped up in the sequel trilogy, apart from the former’s brief vocal cameo in The Rise of Skywalker along with all the other Jedi who gave Rey a pep talk.

Rosario Dawson handled the fan favorite character quite well. Perhaps the highlight of the episode was when Ahsoka Tano reflected on her former master Anakin Skywalker in her refusal to train Grogu. Jedi are supposed to be trained at a young age to prevent outside attachments. Mando is for all intents and purposes Grogu’s father.

Mando can never succeed in his mission because it would mean the end of the series. In order to satisfy the viewers, the show is throwing out fan favorite mentions like Grand Admiral Thrawn and the planet Tython to keep things interesting. With the way “The Jedi” played out, longtime fans may get a bit antsy for more franchise reveals that probably won’t be coming anytime soon.

The only point that didn’t really work was Ahsoka Tano’s battle with Elsbeth. The whole nature of Tano’s efforts to make it seem like she killed Mando was a bit pointless, but seeing the skilled dual-wielding Jedi struggle to fight a woman wielding a beskar spear seemed very silly. Tano could’ve jerked the spear away with a single motion of the force. The fact that she didn’t gives fans a bit more satisfying of an action scene, but this sequence was silly enough to begin with.

Mando and Grogu will almost certainly not arrive on Tython with only three episodes left of the season, especially with Moff Gideon tracking the Razor Crest. Chapter 13 was the best episode of the series, striking a perfect balance between casual viewers and Star Wars superfans. This wasn’t just good television, but a perfect roadmap for a franchise to use with regard to exploring its own ethos. The Mandalorian is pretty great when it’s just performing as “The Baby Yoda show,” but there’s so much more for the series to explore.

Be sure to check out Estradiol Illusions’ Mandalorian recaps!

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Saturday

21

November 2020

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The Mandalorian Season Two Recap: Chapter Twelve

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Nevarro is not a very interesting planet, too much of a Tatooine clone in a way that’s only exacerbated by the existence of Jakku. There are seemingly countless planets for The Mandalorian to explore, but so far the show has followed the Star Trek model of prioritizing places that piles of rocks. Piles of rocks make for easy reusable set pieces.

The Mandalorian has very few recurring characters, let alone ones who are friendly to Mando and Baby Yoda. Greef Karga and Cara Dune are about it among the living. By practically every measure of conventional television storytelling, it makes sense that they’d pop up in season two, even if the plot might be better off with heading into new territory.

Mando’s arrival to Nevarro was a bit awkward, featuring some pretty wooden dialogue between Mando, Cara, and Greef. The Mandalorian has never been much for exposition, but a scene or two with Mando laying out the stakes of the season felt needed in this briskly paced episode. It’s always fun to see Carl Weathers again, who also directed this episode, but the writing hardly did his character any favors this time around.

As often happens with The Mandalorian, the action sequences are used to cover up the rushed exposition and clunky dialogue. The return of the unnamed Mythrol (Horatio Sanz) who Mando first captured in the show’s very first episode was a fun callback, though Greef and Cara’s unnecessary meanness toward him in the Imperial base was a bit much. Yelling at a guy to hurry up the second he started pushing buttons on a control system is hardly proper manners!

The first half of the episode made no effort to present the mission to blow up the Imperials as anything more than filler. Things took a completely unexpected turnaround when the team discovered that Moff Gideon had been using the base for genetic experiments. Putting aside the sly reference to midichlorians, the whole sequence served to give this detour real stakes in the show’s lore.

The action sequences were unsurprisingly spectacular. To some extent, the Stormtrooper cannon fodder is getting a little stale, but the sets are so fun to look at that it’s hard to care. The Trexler Marauder ship battle between the speeder bikes and the Tie Fighters was one of the highlights of the whole series, something that could have easily been showcased in a feature film.

One of the big questions I had heading into the season was how hard the show would try and capitalize on Baby Yoda’s status as one of the cutest fictional characters in the world. Baby Yoda being dropped in a classroom only to steal a student’s blue macarons is the kind of sequence that pretty much solely exists for memes. The little fella has a one-track mind when it comes to food, and it’s pretty much the most adorable thing in Star Wars history. He may not be a very good ship engineer, but he’s got a career waiting for him on The Food Network when this is all over.

The return of Captain Carson Teva, last seen leaving the ice planet in his X-wing instead of helping Mando fix his ship, hints at a broader role for the New Republic. The Outer Rim has historically been a problematic area for both Imperial and Republic control, though Greef and Cara seem to be keeping Nevarro in relatively good shape. As a series, The Mandalorian hasn’t spent a ton of time trying to bridge the gap between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

 It seems unlikely that Mando will want to be a part of any broader conflict between the remnants of the Empire and the New Republic, exacerbated by the show’s fairly slow pace. The show does a good job presenting its adventures as existing in the larger canon without getting anyone’s expectations up. The Empire is tracking the Razor Crest, hinting that perhaps the broader New Republic will get involved after all.

Chapter 12 recovered nicely after a bumpy first act, putting forth some of the series’ best action scenes. One could be forgiven for an eye-roll at the return to Nevarro given how much this season has dragged its feet already. With four episodes left to go, hopefully the show will stop taking detours. For now, it’s still some of the best entertainment television has to offer.

Be sure to listen to Estradiol Illusions’ Mandalorian recaps!

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