{ Under The Bluegums }

A personal blog with craft tutorials, reviews of books, films, and music, parenting advice, and opinions on society and politics.

December 23, 2017

Movie Review || Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a visual feast. From the opening scenes of gigantic spaceship battles to the final red-as-blood-spattered salt plains of Crait, Star Wars has turned into a full-scale, awe-inspiring digital production that certainly does justice to George Lucas' original vision for the film series. I liked the movie, but believe there was really too much going on for the film to have been entirely effective. It has made this fan (mostly) happy.

I have to agree with Huffington Post reviewer Matthew Jacobs when he called the film 'bloated' and trying to do too much in a small space of time. There were too many focal points; too many ineffective new additions; too many characters but only a few developing; too many motives; and sometimes the humour seemed strained and forced.

The rest of my review below is full of SPOILERS, so if you don't want to have the film SPOILED before you see it, you had better leave - STAT!

At first, I believed the writing wouldn't satisfy hardcore fans, feeling there's something missing, some purpose, along with a plot flow. Taken at face value, overthrowing the First Order is too large a context to be the purpose of the film, since we don't know what is at stake. Without knowing how the First Order is bad, aside from being ruled by a Sith Lord, we cannot invest in the rebellion as we could in the first trilogy, or in The Force Awakens.

One of this film's drawbacks is its dependence on what we know of the Empire. What is the First Order's endgame? What is the Resistance's? Rey doesn't know why she was sent to find Luke, aside from the Resistance looking for him and her own needs. Furthermore, what exactly is the Resistance fighting for, aside from their lives? There is a lack of overall purpose and the steps heading toward the endgame overlap and intertwine, and it feels like ants whose pathway has been destroyed.

However, I finally realised there is a purpose and R2-D2 replaying Leia's original call for help in the film points to it: the spark of a new hope. It is the need for hope to be resurrected and sustained that holds all the Star Wars movies together, and is indeed the essence of this film, particularly with regards to Luke and his own redemption.

Hope is an abstract concept though and does not make the film better on the surface as you are watching it; I suppose it is the same for all good films: they improve with retrospection.
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Luke Skywalker watching the remains of a Temple burn
I wish there was a better focus in this film. Perhaps on Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke to learn more about their pasts, or even a focus on the Resistance so we could learn more about the background of the First Order and how it came about. I mean, where did Snoke come from? How did the First Order come about after the destruction of the Empire? Filmmakers should not depend on book-based or even series-based canon to fill moviegoers in and I really enjoyed The Force Awakens because the story flowed well and made sense without dipping into canon. I think its use of A New Hope helped it along as there was a basis for how a successful story should flow. In addtion, the First Order killed an entire village of people for a USB stick and stole children to train them as Stormtroopers, so we knew why they had to be defeated. We were introduced to new characters but they were growing together. They had one quest.

The Last Jedi's story development is not based on any of its predecessors, and it crammed as much story into it as possible. We have a bunch of new characters building new relationships with old characters who are attempting multiple quests at the same time, and only some characters develop and grow. I think the separate stories would have been more effective in two films. There could have been more time to learn about the First Order, about Luke's journey after Return of the Jedi, Rey could have been trained for a longer time, the search for the codebreaker wouldn't have felt so rushed, we could have seen more of Captain Phasma and perhaps even Finn's history... But there again, I have no idea how the story will progress into the third film of the trilogy and maybe the story will be smoothed out later.
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Kyle Ren preparing for battle
It was intriguing to me that on one hand it appeared that the Force was simply something people used but on the other, it also worked of its own volition, calling to Rey on the island, for example. Is it too much of a stretch to believe that it has a plan? Snoke's admission that it was he who connected Rey and Ren was disappointing because I want Ren to be good in a way I never wanted Darth Vader to be good - for that I just wanted Luke to be right, to redeem his father. Maybe it's Adam Driver's sincerity, or maybe it's because he was unmasked in The Force Awakens - he's been humanised, for me and for Rey, which allows her to invest in him and move the story forward.

What I'm going to say next is controversial, because it agrees with director Rian Johnson's seeming attempt to leave the past behind. I kind of wish there was a last Jedi and the Dark and Light fought no more. This would be following the original prophesy of balance that Qui Gon Jinn believed in. When Luke begins to train Rey he calls the force the balance between everything, but with constant battles between the Sith and the Jedi, there will be no balance. That's why I was so excited (and for other obvious reasons) in the scene where Rey and Kylo Ren are fighting together - the Dark Side fighting alongside the Light Side. Perhaps this is the plan for the last part of the trilogy, because Kylo Ren is still in conflict about which side he's on, and perhaps the pair will eventually foster the Grey Jedi. Despite Snoke claiming he had connected them, they still shared this connection at the end of the film, with Snoke dead. Does this mean the Force has a greater plan after all? Does it also desire balance?

But this kind of balance would destroy conflict, and where would Disney make its money then? Furthermore, I have to admit the plot of Rebels, Resistance versus Empire, First Order is getting a bit tired.
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Luke Skywalker after Rey hands him his light saber
I enjoyed Mark Hamill's performance: he is clearly not the Luke Skywalker I knew, nor Hamill's. He has lost hope. He is a man simply waiting to die. It's his regret and failure in creating Kylo Ren that sent him into exile, as it was Yoda's failure to defeat Emperor Palpatine that sent him to Dagobah. I am glad he faced up to his failure and redeemed himself by accepting his failure and facing Ren before he joined the Force but I can't help but feel there should have been more to his story. Luke Skywalker deserved more than 20 minutes of sulking and a five-minute, though thrilling, battle with Kylo Ren. Also, I can't reconcile Luke's overall mood of defeat with the fact that The Force Awakens was focused on finding a map that led to him. Why leave a map if he truly wished to die alone? Maybe there was a change in the ultimate plan for him with the change in directorial vision.

At the end of the film, there is a scene where children are playing with an action figure of Luke Skywalker, and this does him some justice as a legend and inspiration who has sparked a new hope and imagination in what the world could be without the First Order, albeit whose purpose is elusive to me (much like Darth Maul was to the Jedi).
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Rose and Finn
The film has earned accolades for its inclusion. There are noticeably more women, both in leadership positions and at the sidelines, and people of colour. I have to say it felt weird to see so many women in the film - I'm so used to seeing men everywhere I look in the Star Wars universe. Sometimes the placements seemed a bit forced, though, or perhaps that's just my programming. Many of the story arcs involve women showing up men in positions of knowledge, skill, and capability. Take: Poe, who is not only sidelined by Admiral Holdo and stunned by Leia for mutiny, but also forced to reconsider his original perception of a female leader; Finn, who talks over Rose at one moment only to have her force her way back into the conversation as the expert; and even Kylo Ren, as his offer to allow Rey to rule the galaxy by his side is rejected.

But...considering this is a film set in a galaxy, where are all the freakin' aliens!
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Rey before meeting the Force
Many fans are disappointed that there is nothing special about Rey's parentage. In a galaxy that has been filled with Skywalkers destined for greatness, Rey's humble roots are a let-down. But I didn't mind this plot change. This is exactly what makes Rey special. You don't have to have a legacy to change the world. You can rule your own destiny and Rey has no one to determine her future but herself. Besides, who's to say she does not have a destiny separate to that of the Skywalkers or the Kenobis or anyone from the past? Maybe the Force has a plan after all. Or maybe Kylo Ren was just lying.

So what were my favourite parts of The Last Jedi? Well, Leia using the Force to escape death in space was pretty darn awesome. It's a pity this may be the only and last time we'll see her employ her skills with the Force, but it was quite a spectacular way to go and I'm pleased Carrie Fisher got to see her character's power. It was especially moving considering Fisher's death earlier this year.

Kylo metaphorically shedding his mask - and his past - was telling, especially as it came so near to the first of Kylo and Rey's one-on-ones. Then their battle against Elite Praetorian Guards after several scenes fraught with tension - seeing the pair fight back to back was incredible.

After that, Luke walking out of a crater of enemy fire completely unharmed, and then his final battle with Kylo Ren - it was wonderful to see Luke so confident and Kylo Ren so irate. I loved the return of puppet Yoda - long live puppetry - and then the salt foxes on Crait were beautiful (I liked them more than the ridiculous Porgs).

Finally, Admiral Holdo sending her carrier through Snoke's ship at light speed: the silence and stop frames were art.
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Crait
Despite my misgivings, I feel overall it was a successful rendering of the Star Wars universe, albeit a breakaway from tradition. It was filled with stunning visuals, entertaining characters, left me and many fans with many questions about the nature of the Force and where the story may be headed, and tipped its hat to the legend of Star Wars while breaking new ground for fans. With regards to the latter, we must remember that The Empire Strikes Back was in the past slated as the worst of the original trilogy, but is now a favourite among many fans. I'm certain that this film will also become more endearing as it is watched over and over again, mysteries are solved, and characters develop further. This is what fans upset with the new direction the film takes are missing: Star Wars at its heart is not really about the Skywalkers or the Kenobis or the Resistance/Rebels or even the Jedi, but about the hope that good will prevail, that the spark of light will never die. After all, it is hope that carries resistance, and it is hope that inspires the boy on Canto Bight, hope that wakes the Force, and hope that imagines a galaxy of infinite possibilities. So, here's hoping that coming Star Wars films will learn from bloat and become slim and streamlined!

Credit for all images: Facebook/StarWarsAfrica

Further Reading:

Alt-Right Group Ruined 'The Last Jedi' Rotten Tomatoes Score Because It Was Too Feminist
Just How Seriously Should We Take This Star Wars: The Last Jedi Backlash?
Of Course There Was A Secret In That Big 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Cameo
Five Things You Probably Missed in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
10 burning 'Last Jedi' questions we need answered in 'Star Wars: Episode IX'

December 21, 2017

Favourites || Best Free Printables for Christmas

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fave-free-christmas-printables
My absolute favourite online indulgence this year has definitely been the existence of legions of beautiful, creative, and inspiring free printables. Most of my printable downloads are worksheets and activities for my daughter, which have been so useful as I've tested out homeschooling her, but there is an amazing pool of creative artists who share the most amazing designs - for free! For Christmas, you can find anything from gift tags and gift boxes to advent calendars and convenient checklists.

I haven't actually used a lot of the printables I've discovered, as Christmas somehow manages to sneak up on me every year, although this year I have managed to print out paper houses that will be the focal points of our tree this year. I have done some (I lie - a lot) of browsing, though, and these are my 10 favourite printables to make your Christmas prettier.

10. Merry and Bright Image Transfer Tree Decoration

If you're looking for a unique decoration, this easy one can certainly be customised to suit you, if you have a computer and printer.
From Shrimp Salad Circus

9. Calligraphy Gift Tags

These gift tags are certain to add some panache to your gifts.
From Lindsey Bee

8. Gift Boxes and Tags

Looking for a quick and easy gift wrapping idea for a small item? Then these are ideal, as they are easy to make and come with their very own tags, too!
From Freckle and Fair

7. Pillow Gift Boxes, and links to more styles

Small gifts can easily find a home in these sweet pillow boxes, or find the links to several other styles in the link below.
From Homemade Gifts Made Easy

6. Adult Colouring Pages

If you get some time to yourself this Christmas and need some colour therapy, these free doodling Christmas-themed pages will hit the spot.
From 1 + 1 + 1 = 1

5. Funny Face Christmas Crackers

Looking for a fresh option for traditional Christmas crackers? Look no further than these adorable DIYs!
From Mr Printables

4. Christmas Village

I love these paper houses because they are unique, though they won't really make a great tea candle holder. They are supposed to be for a mantle, and would make a sweet activity for a bored child, too.
From Thoughts From Alice

3. Christmas Activities Paper Chain

I thought this was a great idea! Perhaps it's a bit too close for Christmas, but I'm certain some of the activities can be repeated or left out entirely.
From Sunny Day Family

2. Gingerbread Scavenger Hunt

If you're in the mood for baking gingerbread men, make your family work for their biscuits with this fun scavenger hunt idea!
From Sunny Day Family

1. Gingerbread House Gift Box

I've put this gift box at number one because I've actually printed it out and made one myself. It combines two of my favourite things: colouring and folding paper. It's going on our tree, but it would make a lovely gift box that no one would be able to throw away.
From Bugaboocity

What are your favourite Christmas printable resources?

December 15, 2017

DIY || Christmas Biscuit-Filled Mason Jars

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I was asked to make some vegan biscuits for my husband's staff this year, as he wanted a more personal touch. I had a lot of fun with these, from coming up with a concept for the decor, purchasing the bottles and decorations, making the biscuits, and then decorating the bottles. I was busy with them for the whole day on Sunday, but I think the end result is wonderful. Below, you can find a list of supplies, the process used for decorating, as well as my favourite coconut biscuit recipe and a link to my printable Christmas tags!

Supplies:

- Around 12 coconut biscuits (or biscuits of your choice) for each jar. Remember when making them to think about the opening of your jar and ensure they'll fit!
- Eight 580ml, tall Consol jars with gold lids (I also used three pickling jars for larger gifts we filled with nuts)
- Two packs of red and white luxury tissue paper with Christmas patterns
- One 20m reel of red sparkly twine
- Sellotape
- Christmas gift tags (get my free printable here)
- Gold glitter glue
- Hole punch

Recipe:

vegan-coconut-biscuit-recipe

Decorating your gifts:

- Print out the gift tags (here) and decorate the stars with gold glitter glue. Set aside for the glue to dry. Cut out and punch a hole in the top above the decorative scroll.
- Fill the bottles with the biscuits, trying to get them to sit flat and upright.
- Measure your bottle from the middle of the bottom to the middle of the top and cut the red sparkly string four times this length, plus a little extra. Cut eight of these lengths.

Hint: Wind the string around one jar before cutting the lengths to ensure you have the correct measurement.

christmas-mason-jars-biscuits-free-tag-printableFold this string in half and glue the half point on the lid of the jar. Turn the jar over, wrap the string around the bottom and cross, taping the four directional pieces in place. Turn the jar right way up and secure the top ends with tape.

- Measure around the jar just under the lid and cut eight strings to twice that length (for the knot and bow).

- Cut your tissue paper into squares that will fit over over the lid of the jar and a little way down the sides. Place the tissue paper over the lid and scrunch it down over the sides, securing it in place with the short length of string. Make a double knot to secure it in place.

- Pull one of the loose lengths through the back of the hole of a gift tag and tie in place with a ribbon.

And that's it! Simple and effective gifts! I would love to know what you think of this DIY and would love it if you shared you homemade gifts even more!

December 13, 2017

I Lay Awake Last Night: Should My Four-Year-Old Be Reading Already?

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I lay awake in bed last night, thrown into an anxious panic by this story about a four-year-old boy reading 100 books in a day. I'm lucky if my daughter wants to do the alphabet with me. As we parents are wont to do, I compared myself, and blamed it on myself. I haven't been pushing myself, or her, to focus very much on schooling. I felt like a terrible parent because I haven't made proper use of her young years and our time. I know a two-year-old who can apparently count to 14, and now there is this boy reading 100 books by himself, of his own volition!

All night my dreams were filled with crawling things on my pillow and all over the blankets, things keeping me back, things keeping my daughter back. When I woke this morning, I felt useless and pointless and simply a poor mother as I looked at my daughter's honey-coloured hair on the pillow beside me. I was not doing her intelligence justice, I thought. I was ruining her chances at success later in life, I cried. She's going to drop out of school because she can't read, I panicked.

I've been feeling under a lot of pressure lately, simply because of being a stay-at-home mom and all the responsibility that goes with it. I belong to several homeschooling groups and I feel quite left behind by it all. And even though my daughter and I are together all day, I feel like I don't spend enough time with her. Then you read about children the same age as your daughter doing something they're not doing, or hearing of children seemingly more advanced than your own, or hearing that early readers are more likely to enter a university and you're plunged into anxiety. It's ridiculous that in times like these we reach for Google to solve our anxiety problems. But that is exactly what I did. And it helped.

It turns out doing things that promote early literacy are more important than pushing your child to read. According to University of Michigan Professor of Education Dr Susan Neuman, there is no research that proves teaching your child to read early is either a good thing or a bad thing. She adds that the early push to get children to read, even from infancy, might be geared to the parents' needs more than anything else. And learning through play and conversations with parents is more effective at building the foundations of reading than showing flash cards to babies or wasting valuable play time at expensive early-age preparatory schools.

Most children only learn to read at age five or six.  In South Africa, children aren't even expected to be able to read in Grade R (age 6) yet; that's when they're only learning prewriting skills, routine, and social skills. I also have a gut-reaction when I hear about children doing things way before average - is it really the child, or were there Tiger Mother (or Father) involved, pushing them and hurrying them along for the prestige? Making notes of simple progress to compare to other children in the future? Why compare your child at all? (Says she, who just spent a sleepless night worrying)

But the most important things you as a parent can do before then is have conversations with your children using elaborative language, read to them as much as possible, and allow them to see how reading and writing are a part of daily life. I'm on par with these three things: my daughter is the only person I speak with all day long and I've been reading to her since she was a baby (sure, I read my horror novel out loud, but the point was that she heard language in action). She knows 12 sight words and can learn a new one in a week, recognises numbers and letters, speaks really well, reasons well (and is cheeky about it, too!) and even understands the basics of addition and subtraction - and right now I feel like I'm worrying about nothing. As usual. Especially since I know my child better than anyone else.

Further Reading:

Should My Young Child Already Be Reading?
What Your Child Should Know Age 4
How To Determine When Kids Should Start School