I churned through a few children's classics this months; ones that I had never read before, but which I was eager to finally read if not just to understand their importance in the cultural milieu. It was also a month for mockumentaries – three in total – which proved to me that as funny as they can be, it's also a very lazy genre. Seriously, all you need are some talking heads, a few celebrity cameos, and instructions for everyone to take themselves extremely seriously. There's a reason this genre got kick-started in a location as banal as an office block. Because it could.
As well as this, another adaptation of a North American novel, a variation on Groundhog Day, those three no-longer-obscure women mathematicians, and a cult classic I'd never even heard about until recently.
Oh, and I FINALLY get to The Defenders.
Wicked: The Musical
Yes, Wicked has finally reached New Zealand. As it happens, I went with a friend to see it in Sydney four years ago, and though I was eager to see it again with foreknowledge of how it unfolded, the NZ production was unfortunately smaller in scale compared to the spectacle of Sydney, and therefore inevitably less impressive. It's like visiting Movieworld on the Gold Coast after you've been to Disneyland in California (which has also happened to me).
That said, it was still a lot of fun – even if I hold it at least partly responsible for the "who's the REAL villain here?" revisionism craze that's only just starting to wind up. As per Gregory Maguire's novel, the Wicked Witch of the West is profoundly misunderstood: bullied for her green skin, neglected by her father, manipulated by the Wizard and ultimately the victim of propaganda and slander. In actuality she has a strong moral compass, struggling against the enslavement and genocide of talking animals throughout Oz.
Of course, the musical is significantly less dark than the novel, largely through the focus on Elphaba's friendship with Glinda, who provides most of the comedy with her self-absorbed ditziness. Depending on the actress, Glinda runs the risk of stealing the show with her posturing and preening – in fact, it's she that gets the most character development across the course of the story: you could make a serious case for her being the real protagonist based on her growth.
If there's one thing that's always bugged me it's that the events of the musical don't jive with the events of The Wizard of Ozat all. Here the origins of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion bear no resemblance to what we know of them from E.L. Baum's novel or Gregory Maguire's retelling. And honestly, what's the point of a prequel if it doesn't lead in smoothly to the original story?
It clearly hasn't stopped the musical's resounding success, but I definitely prefer the first act to the second.
Demon: Volume 1 – 4 by Jason Shiga
If you have a strong constitution and fifteen minutes to kill, you could do a lot worse than picking up "Demon", a graphic novel about a nihilistic suicidal actuary who finds a reason to go on living when he realizes he will automatically possess the body of the person closest to him each time he kills himself.
That's quite a dark premise to swallow, made even stranger by the cute cartoonish artwork, but the four-part series thrives on how Shiga lays down a clear set of rules as to Jimmy Yee's high-concept condition, and then explores its myriad of possibilities from all possible angles.
(Yeah, I know I've been on a bit of a rampage lately with my dislike of all things "dark and edgy", but it's not that I have a moral aversion to such things – only that I'm a bit sick of them. I'm still on board when the stories are actually good and/or original, which this is).
The Book of Never by Ashley Capes
Ashley Capes is an Australian author who (thanks to a mutual friend) sends along his books for me to write and review. Working within the fantasy genre, he manages to play around with some of the expected tropes while still delivering a fairly straightforward adventure – or to put it another way: the plots follow a familiar trajectory, but the details you discover along the way can be quite surprising.
The title refers to a man called Never, known (and hunted) for having blood with unusual abilities. Every time it mingles with that of another person, he takes on their memories, personality traits and – in this story at least – any illnesses they might carry. Tracked by a nefarious militia who sees the advantages to such a gift (or curse), Never's quest is to avoid his pursuers, find answers to his mysterious past, and shake off the strange fever that his last blood-mingling has brought on.
Never's story is broken up into a number of novellas, which make them quick and easy reads, each one focusing on a location Never searches in his quest for answers: a deserted island, a haunted forest, a dangerous swamp, etc, and a cast of supporting characters (none quite as interesting as him) to help or hinder.
The Borrowers by Mary Norton
This is one of those classic children's books that I knew by osmosis (and the TV series/films/anime) but never experienced first-hand. As with Peter Pan, it's fascinating to read the original text and discover just how much of your preconceptions have been built by various adaptations, and how far they strayed from the story's earliest iteration.
In this case, the most fascinating thing is that Mary Norton constantly keeps the existence of the titular Borrowers in question. The story is framed by an elderly woman telling her grand-daughter a second-hand tale from her imaginative (and long since deceased) younger brother, who claimed to have met little people living in the floor of their great-aunt's house. She lovingly describes the culture of the Clock family (Pod, Homily and Arrietty) and their life-style; taking things from the "human beans" and that will never be missed. As far as they know, they're the last of their kind, with every other Borrower of the household having been spotted and forced to immigrate to the country.
There's a deep sense of melancholy about the whole proceedings: that Arrietty must come to terms with the idea of her being the last of her kind, and that the world is much, much bigger than she could have ever dreamed (and certainly not designed for her). The story even ends on a surprisingly ambiguous note, with the Borrowers being discovered and escaping from the household – or so the narrator's brother claims. He never sees them after a particularly harrowing encounter with the housekeeper, and it's only his own intuition and a few other little clues that assure him they got away safely.
If they ever existed in the first place. The story ends on a final note of uncertainty, in which the old woman tells her granddaughter that the only "proof" she ever found of the Borrowers was Arrietty's journal – and it turns out that she had exactly the same kind of handwriting as her late brother.
Of course, the later books in the series (which as I understand it, deal with the Borrowers trying to live out in the wild) seem to assert their existence, but in this initial story there's plenty of ambivalence over just how seriously we're meant to take the whole thing. For that alone it makes for a surprising reading experience.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
As children's books go I was less familiar with this than The Borrowers – in fact, going in the only thing I would have been able to tell you about it was it involved a diminutive spaceman in some capacity. And after reading it I gotta admit, I'm a little stumped. Maybe I read it too quickly, and thereby missed some of the story's subtext, but... well, it's a weird one.
The narrator is a pilot who crash lands in the Sahara Desert, and ends up meeting a little prince from a faraway planet, who regales him with stories about his interstellar adventures. Was the snake meant to be Lucifer? Did the little prince effectively commit suicide by asking the snake to bite him? Did the sheep eat the flower? What was up with the rose? And the fox?
Maybe I'm just (as the book so often says) too grown-up to get this story. At least right now. I'll try again when I have the time and space to properly delve into it.
Tales from Earthsea by Ursula le Guin
To be honest, I was never a huge Earthsea fan, despite knowing that it's one of the staples of fantasy-fiction. Much like the works of Robin McKinley, I can recognize le Guin's place of honour in the genre (especially for her decision to make the inhabitants of the Archipelago dark-skinned at a time when no other sci-fi/fantasy authors gave a shit), but for some reason her stories never fully resonated with me. But as with Robin McKinley, I'm still trying to get myself on board.
I've read all four of the Earthsea books, which are very much a trilogy and then a coda that was written after the author's feminist awakening. Obviously there's nothing wrong with that, but the content of Tehanu was so dark and grim and awful at times that I couldn't enjoy it at all. Le Guin rights the ship a little with Tales from Earthsea, which again takes on the patriarchal society of her invented world, but challenges it in a much more balanced and nuanced way.
Containing five stories and an overview of the major islands of her Archipelago, it’s a nice companion piece to the original stories – I just really and truly wish I liked it more. Are there any fans out there that can fill me in on what I'm missing?
Searching for Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
The second in Wrede's four-part fantasy-comedy adventure introduces King Mendanbar of the Enchanted Forest, who when inspecting his kingdom notices some odd patches of desolation covered with dragon scales. Are the dragons to blame, or is it a set up? Joining forces with Princess Cimorene, who is worried about the disappearance of Kazul the dragon, the two start investigating.
It's a pleasant enough story, with the usual components carried over from Dealing with Dragons: feisty princess, evil wizards, in-jokes pertaining to staple fairy tale characters – there's nothing wrong with it, but by this stage some of the very tropes Wrede is trying to send-up have themselves become cliché. Turns out that even satire of fantasy has its use-by date, and a lot of what she skewers was done much better by Diana Wynne Jones.
Also, the romance between Cimorene and Mendanbar is wholly uninteresting. What was the point of introducing a princess who is totally uninterested in romance and marriage, instead preferring a life of adventure and learning as a dragon's librarian, only to shunt her aside as the protagonist of this book in favour of the rather nebbish Mendanbar?
Sixteen Candles (1984)
The residue nostalgia drummed up by Stranger Things and the recent article Molly Ringwald wrote for The New York Times has led me to the films of John Hughes. My main question going in was: just how badly had they aged? (Pretty badly).
As it happens, I watched The Breakfast Club back in high-school and pretty much hated it (Bender was vile), but I also had vague memories of seeing the second half of Sixteen Candles on television and feeling a bit more kindly disposed to it. Plus I was also interested to see the whole thing through the eyes of someone living in 2018, knowing that my older cousins were obsessed with Molly Ringwald back in the Eighties.
When people say that it's aged, they're not just talking about the racist and sexist elements (I'm not sure what's worse, the Asian kid called Long Duk Dong or the fact that Ringwald's love interest just palms his drunk girlfriend off on a horny nerd to do whatever he wants with before taking her home) but also the plot itself. These days teen movies can be surprisingly clever in their plotting, even as they negotiate the usual clichés of the genre.
Here, stuff just ... kinda happens. Characters flit in and out without any sort of character arc (what was the point of the girl in the retainer?) We're never given the slightest reason to care about either of the hook-ups that take place. Almost everyone is a bland caricature. Despite a few good jokes, the fact that the story is essentially about a teenage girl trying to hook up with a guy she barely knows is ... not really all that interesting.
And yes, I realize that I'm sort of missing the point here. John Hughes's films were some of the first to focus inclusively on the teenage experience, and for that reason they have a place in cinematic history. So their legacy is one of kick-starting a new genre that opened a door to better films – not being particularly good films in themselves. In conclusion: Sixteen Candles works best as a blueprint to later, cleverer, funnier teen movies.
Angel Heart (1987)
I've been revisiting the Gabriel Knight trilogy, and so was intrigued to find out on the Wikipedia page that the first game in the series was heavily influenced by Angel Heart, a movie I'd never heard of before. Mickey Rourke plays private investigator Harry Angel who's hired by a mysterious client to track down a man named Johnny Favourite, who apparently owes him some unspecified debt.
The case that unfolds involves drug-addled doctors, psychic debutantes, jazz singers, carnival fortune-tellers and voodoo practitioners – all as weird as hell, but every time Harry decides to back out before things get too hairy, his client offers him more money to press on.
I'd actually never seen Micky Rourke as a young man before (it's next to impossible to imagine him as Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2) and that Robert de Niro is playing the devil is spoiled by the cliché that his portrayal has become. His alias is Louie Cypher, his fingernails are perfectly manicured (and slightly pointed) and he wears a white suit. De Niro may have been the first to codify these tropes, but in the twenty years since the film's release, it's how nearly every on-screen version of Lucifer has been depicted.
On reading some Amazon.com reviews I was amused to discover most people don’t even bother to obscure his identity, which consequently spoils the supernatural aspect of the movie that's fairly ambiguous for a significant portion of the screen-time.
The film's other claim to fame is being what got Lisa Bonet kicked off The Cosby Show. I knew she'd disappeared in later seasons, but I never realized why – and it's a shame really, as this is not really a role you'd want to give up a steady-paying job for.
But I'd say Angel Heart is worth seeing, especially since it's since achieved cult-classic status. The suspense rises at a steady pace, there are all sorts of visual clues strewn throughout, and when the final twist comes, it's devastating. I can definitely see how its depiction of New Orleans and Harry Angel inspired the characters and setting of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father, and I was especially tickled by the brief appearance of character actress Judith Drake – who would go on to play a part in Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within. Funny how things work out like that.
7 Days in Hell (2015)
The first of three mockumentaries that caught my attention a while back and which I watched in quick succession during a sick day (there's something so undemanding about mockumentaries, which make them perfect for when you're feeling crappy). Clocking in at a very trim fifty minutes, it was certainly aware of its premise's limitations at presenting anything longer. Andy Samberg is considered "the bad boy of tennis" for his outlandish behaviour on the court, whilst Kit Harington (whose last name I've been spelling wrong for YEARS on Tumblr) is the dim upper-class child prodigy whose terrifying stage mother rules his life. Clearly, the two are destined to come head-to-head at Wimbledon.
It ticks the usual boxes of the genre: talking heads, celebrity cameos, and the way that utter lunacy is treated with comical seriousness. It's hard to criticise something that's over so quickly, though it does veer into stupidity quite a few times (mockumentaries have to at least feel like they're grounded in the real world; that's the whole point, right?) and ends on a bafflingly dark note.
I'd say its greatest contribution is the GIF of Kit Harington trying for a glass of water and overturning the table instead. We can all relate.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping(2016)
The second of the mockumentaries which also stars Andy Samberg is a send-up of the music industry, particularly the breath-taking self-absorption of spoiled pop singers (props to Mariah Carey for straight-facedly claiming that her favourite Connor4Real song is "Humble", because she relates to it so much).
If 7 Days in Hell was had a surprisingly dark and mean undercurrent, then Popstar is sentimentality all the way through, with Connor's narcissism largely blamed on the yes-men that surround him, and his fundamental decency finally revealed. Even the toxic influences in his life such as his self-interested agent and publicist are eventually revealed to be good at heart, and the only villains of the piece (somewhat unfortunately) are a rival hip-hop artist and an attention-seeking girlfriend.
The final mockumentary which should have been the best considering the subject matter (a bunch of gaming mascots taking themselves way too seriously to compete for first prize in a mascot tournament... that's gold!) but which unfortunately falls a little flat. I think too many characters are spread out over too long a run-time, as we only really invest in a couple of them, and there's little interaction between them in the lead-up to the big competition.
A lot of comedic talent is on display here, from Parker Posey to Jane Lynch, but none of them really get to unleash. Still it might be considered worth it for the championship itself, which has some genuine suspense and hilarity. Chris O'Dowd's performance in particular (as the belligerent The Fist, who's already been kicked out of several sporting arenas) left me in tears of laughter. Imagine the most obnoxiously crass routine that can be performed on ice-skates, and he tops it.
Happy Death Day! (2017)
The premise of Groundhog Day has been repurposed for several other genres – usually sci-fi, horror, thriller or comedy, but as far as I know Happy Death Day is the first time it's been utilized in a slasher film. I think it's telling that we're never given any sort of scientific or supernatural reason as to why Tree Gelbman starts reliving her birthday over and over again – all that matters is that she does. And as you have certainly already deduced, the day ends each time with her murder at the hands of a masked killer. Logic (supplied by love interest Carter in a subplot that's surprisingly sweet) dictates that in order to break the cycle, Tree has to unmask her killer and live out the night.
What most Groundhog Day stories have in common – besides the obvious – is the character development of its protagonist. From Bill Murray to Tom Cruise, most everyone who gets caught up in a groundhog day loop finds something out about themselves, and Tree is no exception, going from a spoiled sorority mean girl to a much more compassionate and self-aware person (though in a nice touch, the film actually provides a reason as to why she's so horrible in the first place).
In short, I'd sum up the whole thing as "surprisingly good". What looks like a rehash of a familiar premise is actually crafted with a huge amount of care and attention to detail, complete with humour, horror and character development. Even if you're not big on slasher films, this one goes easy on the gore, usually blacking out at the moment of Tree's (many) deaths.
(And in case you were wondering, Tree is short for Theresa, something that confused me as well until her full name was finally uttered).
Hidden Figures (2017)
I actually watched this last year, but somehow forgot to do an entry on it! By now you should know the gist of this movie, and in fact probably have the exact same anecdote about hearing of its existence that everyone else does: total shock that so many black female mathematicians could have been employers at NASA during the Space Race of the 1960s and never knowing it.
This focuses on three in particular: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, who each get their own set of obstacles to surmount and challenges to face: Dorothy isn't getting paid nearly enough for her unofficial role as supervisor, Mary can't attend an all-white university to fulfil her dreams of becoming an engineer, and Katherine finds herself segregated in her new work space, constantly battling the distractions it causes as she endeavours to simply do the work she loves.
Because the film is a family-friendly Hollywood blockbuster, it doesn't go too deep into the truly violent and frightening racial tensions of the time (besides a few glimpsed protests and news broadcasts). The most these women have to deal with on-screen is the relentless sense of being considered second-class citizens, even as they know themselves to be some of the brightest minds in the country.
I have mixed feelings about it all: on the one hand, it does minimize the true context of the time period. On the other, it's a very vivid reminder that racism isn't just slurs and violence – it's all the little ways that a person can be made to feel inadequate. And in yet other ways, the story seems to exacerbate the problems these women run across: according the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Katherine's ongoing problem with having to use the coloured bathroom is completely fabricated. It was Mary who was inconvenienced by the trip to the segregated bathroom; Katherine simply used the white's only bathroom that was nearest her work station, with only one complaint made – years afterwards – that was ignored.
So ... it's a tough issue to tackle. What also caught my attention was that every single white character whose behaviour makes life difficult for our black heroines gets a moment of redemption, from oblivious Al Harrison to coldly polite Vivian Mitchell to Paul Stafford and his barely-concealed impatience and contempt – it is a feel-good movie after all, and so all underlying prejudices must be wiped clean by the final credits. That said, there are other nuances that make up for it: even after Harrison's white saviour moment in which he destroys the signs that segregate the bathrooms, he still addresses his team as "gentlemen" despite the staggeringly obvious presence of two women in his midst.
And of course, more than any other line of dialogue in the script, it's the difference in the work stations of the white women and the black women that really drives home the true nature of segregation. Separate but equal my ass.
Little Women (2017)
I watched this as a natural follow-up to Anne with an E without expecting it to be very good, but it managed to surpass my expectations. It's actually a beautifully written, directed and acted take on Louisa May Alcott's famous novels (as with most adaptations, it combines Little Women and Good Wives under a singular title).
All the girls are wonderfully cast: Meg is suitably lovely, Beth radiates goodness, Amy is a little snot, and Maya Hawke in particular is a perfect Jo. She's got the necessary fire and spirit, but also slightly mannish mannerisms and a voice that's a little deeper than you'd expect. That all four actresses are newcomers (at least, I've never seen any of them in anything before) makes it even better.
Most impressive is the handling of Jo and Laurie. Most adaptations have trouble capturing the rapport between them: Laurie's puppy-love and Jo's resigned inability to summon romantic feelings for him. Instead they're made to follow the standard boy-meets-girl formula to such a degree that it takes a severe tonal shift to prevent them from getting engaged, followed by an awkward hook-up between Laurie and Amy.
Yet here they do a great job of presenting Laurie as way too immature for Jo, and Jo as just Not That Into Him. It still hurts that she has to reject his proposal, but it makes sense in a way the 1994 version – which up until her rejection presents the two as perfect soulmates – just doesn't. Heck, this even sold me on the Laurie and Amy match, considering both are smug, self-satisfied shitheads who know they can be better people but don't have the energy to put the effort in. They're perfect for each other!
Okay, all snark aside, this really is worth seeing. It captures the best parts of the book without the cloying sentimentality or preachiness, and (unlike Anne with an E) updates certain aspects of Alcott's feminism without falling into hopeless anachronism.
The Defenders (2017)
I came to The Defenders with tempered expectations, knowing that most audiences were fairly ho-hum about it, and then ended up really enjoying it... while still recognizing its weaknesses.
The characters were all on-point (and Danny improved, even if it was just in lamp-shading how annoying he is) with the Matt/Jessica dynamic as a particular high-light. Her reaction whenever he turns up in the Daredevil costume is priceless. In fact, I loved watching The Defenders working together as a unit: there's simultaneously less animosity and more snark among them than The Avengers, and any given pairing between the four of them and their side-kicks is pure gold. (Unlike, say, Natasha and Wanda in the movie franchise, who never interact despite the potential of that dynamic).
Here things like Luke calling Danny on his privilege, or Luke and Jessica behaving like adults post-breakup, or Matt gradually opening himself up to the possibility of teamwork – it's all fantastic stuff.
If there's one major disappointment, it's that Claire wasn't utilized nearly enough as the common element in all four of the Defenders' lives. Storytelling logic dictates that she would be the one to bring these people together and point them towards a noble cause – it’s the setup that's been strewn throughout all four of their individual shows. But it never happens! She does formally introduce Luke and Danny, but never interacts with Jessica or Matt at all, only discussing the latter after he's been presumed dead.
Colleen and Misty are used well, but Trish, Malcolm, Foggy and Karen are reduced to sitting in a police station, worrying about their significant other (though it culminates in a beautiful scene in which Jessica walks through the door and into the waiting arms of Trish/Malcolm, while Karen and Foggy are left staring hopelessly at the empty doorframe).
Then there's the villains: The Hand. The shadow organization certainly has the potential to be interesting, but never even come close to making it. In lieu of that, they never get the chance to be intimating either. Most of their faceless ninjas are easily dispatched by the Defenders and their allies, and any personal vendettas (Colleen and Bakuto, Danny and Madame Gao) falls flat given the lack of information we have about their histories together.
For every question that's answers (hey, we finally know what that giant hole was about) twenty more are raised: What the heck do these people want? Immortality apparently, but what do they want to do with it? More organized crime? Drug dealing? Destroy the monks at Kunlun for whatever reason? What happened to those kids who were taken from the hospital in season two of Daredevil? What happens to the ones being trained by Bakuto? What about the Chaste? What was Stick's game? Why did he kill that kid who was a Black Sky yet spare Elektra? What the heck is a Black Sky? That was never clear to me. Why was Elektra so important that Alexandra used the last of the substance to resurrect her? What was the deal with the earthquakes? Why was New York in danger if the Hand just wanted to excavate a few dragon bones?
So much setup over four connected series, and yet the bad guys are so obtuse in their goals and motivations that there's no sense of the stakes whatsoever.
And Alexandra: all those elaborate outfit changes, those scenes of listening classical music and savouring lavish meals in empty restaurants, those myriad hints as to her longevity and the toll it's taken, and what does it all lead to? Yet another of those infuriating GOTCHA! moments when a villain is abruptly killed off and replaced by another. The Marvel Netflix shows have done this twice now, with Cottonmouth in Luke Cage and Harold Meachum in Iron Fist (granted, he came back) and by the time it happens to Alexandra, stabbed in the back by Elecktra mid-speech, it's just tedious.
So is it just me, or is the world rapidly running out of stories to tell? The evil plot regarding the fate of New York is remarkably like that of Gotham in Batman Begins, the villain switcharoo was already done in Luke Cage, and although this came out beforeThe Last Jedi, Elektra's story-arc is eerily similar to Kylo Ren's. Both are used as living weapons by the highly manipulative leaders of evil organizations before each one kills their master and assumes their position of power, all whilst a heroic figure is desperately appealing to the shred of goodness they believe exists within them.
Of course, I'm infinitely more invested Elektra and Matt's relationship than I am in Kylo and Rey's (*shudder*) not to mention having more sympathy for Elektra's plight than Kylo's (not least because Matt is actually correct when he says that there's goodness in her) but the parallels in plot-points are still pretty eye-opening.
To have the light/dark dynamic play out between a dark female and a light male is considerably more interesting to me than the usual good girl/bad boy cliché, and having pointed out Elektra's identity crisis in last January's Woman of the Month entry, it's intriguing to note that she's still no closer to discovering who the hell she is here either (though I got chills every time she eyed her sais).
But I have hope for Elektra in a way that I don't for Kylo: there's a moral compass there, deep down inside her, it's just a matter of her working through her massive identity crisis. She's someone different each time we see her, and though some might chalk that down to bad writing, I think it's indicative of a woman who was never given the chance to exist on her own terms. Matt was always her touchstone on matters of morality, but now that she's finally free of Stick and The Hand (and presuming she survived the explosion) she's got the best chance she's had in her whole life to finally figure things out.
As it happens, the two get one heck of an epic Together in Death scene, and as gloriously toxic as their relationship is, I can't help but cheer for them. Like Athos and Milady, they may never get a happy ending, but they'll never be truly free of each other either.
Forces of Destiny (2018)
If the films are the main courses of the Star Wars franchise and the animated television shows the surprisingly nutritious breakfasts, then Forces of Destiny is a snack. Maybe a small and relatively tasteless bag of popcorn. The second season is comprised of eight episodes, none of them longer than three minutes long, which seem largely designed to sell comics and dolls.
They're so inconsequential that it seems pointless getting riled up over them, though some of them take the opportunity to plug a few story holes or pair up unexpected characters. Perhaps the most valuable episode (at least in the context of the wider Star Wars universe) is when Leia meets Maz Kanata to get help on rescuing Han from Jabba's Palace, and ends up acquisitioning the bounty hunter outfit she uses to spring him from the carbonite. This is closely followed by one involving Anakin, Padme and Ahsoka, which strongly hints that the latter figured out that the former were an item.
The Rey ones are also good, demonstrating that for all her Force-abilities, it's her kindness and compassion that makes her special, whether it's saving the life of an alien who tried to steal her salvage or giving Porgs free Force rides.
Mark Hamill returns for an episode in the midst of Luke's training on Dagobagh (doing a valiant effort to de-age his voice), the women from Star Wars Rebels turn up (still haven't gotten to that show), we get a little more on Finn and Rose's mission (whoever's writing these isn't remotely interested in either character, and their miraculous escape from giant space jellyfish involves them... flying upwards), and there's another bittersweet interlude with Jyn. I have to admit her inclusion baffles me a little – how many little girls are going to insist on watching her movie after this and end up horrified that she's killed off?
But it's all over in less than fifteen minutes, so why not catch up?