Master & Apprentice – Review

MAThis review first appeared on The Star Wars Report.

I have to get something out of the way, right up front. I’m predisposed to love this book. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn are two of my favorite characters in Star Wars. I have, of course, followed their careers with great interest, reading the Jedi Apprentice series from Jude Watson for the Aggressive Negotiations Podcast that I cohost with John Mills and loving every page of it. Now, all this love of these characters as well as this time period in the Saga also made me very apprehensive as I approached Claudia Gray’s Master & Apprentice. I worried it would not live up to my own hype and expectations. Luckily, there was no danger of that at all, it exceeds them.

Gray’s tale takes place in Obi-Wan’s eighteenth year and he’s been Qui-Gon’s apprentice for some time, yet their partnership has never been a smooth one. Obi-Wan chafes at Qui-Gon’s disregard for the rules, creating a rift between them that grows even larger as a new opportunity for Qui-Gon has the potential to rip the two apart forever.

Motivations

One of the strongest parts of Gray’s work is the discussion of the different motivations for the Jedi, “why do they do what they do and how far do they go to do that?”. This is a question that each of the Jedi in this book struggle with. Qui-Gon wrestles with the constraints of the Jedi within the political system of the Republic. He is frustrated over how thisseems to put the Jedi at odds with their mandate as part of the Republic and with what is right. He questions the wisdom of the Jedi becoming little more that the chancellor’s police force and in that, loosing touch with the Living Force. This, in turn, allows for things such as slavery in the galaxy to continue.

Rael Averross is a Jedi that was Dooku’s padawan before Qui-Gon. He was brought to the Temple at the age of five, much later than is normal. Because of this he’s always been an outsider, never truly feeling like he belongs and he’s only worked to foster that more. He’s never lost his accent and his manner and dress reinforce his “otherness”. The Jedi Council has consistently bent the rules for him in an effort to help him reach his full potential, and the loss of his padawan has left him more determined than ever to not repeat the mistakes of the past. Yet all this intent has actually blinded him to his own shortcomings.

Obi-Wan Kenobi is a rule follower, living his life by the Jedi Code, to the letter. Unfortunately his Master sees the Code more as guidelines, which puts them at odds more often than not. The struggle between duty and thinking for one’s self frustrates Obi-Wan.

For each of these characters, motivations drive them as do their assumptions about the universe and their place in it. Gray expertly weaves their tales together to show the ways in which our own assumptions can get in the way and lead us astray. The question of whether or not they will cling to their perceptions, even when they are challenged by new information that renders those perceptions obsolete, is instructive for the world we live in today.

On top of all of this each character has to figure out why they are following the light and what is right. Are they doing it for personal gain? Are they doing it to win some cosmic game? How do they do what is right and work inside the system? What are the principles that are paramount and therefore cannot be forsaken? The answer in the book is, “We don’t choose the light because we want to win…. We choose the light because it is the light.” What makes this answer so beautiful is not just the sentiment, but the way Gray gets the characters who believe it to this point. Each one has their assumptions challenged, they allow themselves to be open to that challenge, and they ultimately have the willingness to turn from those assumptions if they are wrong. What relevancy! In a world where sides are taken based off assumptions about the opposition and where listening is a lost art, it’s edifying to see characters choose the better path. Communication, as always, is the key. As Qui-Gon rightly thinks in the book, “There was no Jedi so wise that he could not be undone by his own assumptions.”

The Book

Master & Apprentice is a prime example of expanding the universe. The Prequel Trilogy is full of things we still know so little about and this book helps fill in some of those gaps. Gray adds to our understanding of the Jedi before Episode I, giving us insight into their relationship with the Republic and some of the reasons why they have set themselves up under its leadership. We are finally given more on Dooku and his relationship with Qui-Gon, as well as the Jedi, since he’s only left the Order a short time before this story takes place. And most importantly, Gray expounds on the core relationship of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, helping to set the stage for what we’ll eventually see in The Phantom Menace. I particularly love the way she sets up Qui-Gon’s fascination with prophecy and ancient Jedi lore which will set him on the path of immortality in the Force and the “Chosen One”.

There is so much more that I could talk about in this story, but honestly it’s best left for you to discover on your own. For my money, Claudia Gray has written a book that stands with her best Star Wars work, Bloodline and Lost Stars, which also happen to be two of the best books in the new canon. After reading this book, one can only hope that Del Ray and Lucasfilm will allow Gray to continue telling stories about these two. It would be magnificent to see the story about them on Mandalore, protecting Satine for a year, as well as more on Qui-Gon’s journey in the Force. Master & Apprentice is rated 5 out of 5 stars.

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Shazam! – Review

MV5BMjIyNTkwODY1OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTUyMTA5NjM@._V1_DC Comics saw its last movie, Aquaman obliterate expectations and it all began with doing early screenings for fans. Now with Shazam!, two weeks away and garnering strong, early buzz, they’re hoping to repeat that success by giving fans the opportunity to see their latest movie. I was lucky enough to see it durning one of these screenings and the question is, ” Is the magic strong with Shazam! or does it fizzle out?”.

Shazam! is bewitching. It feels like the type of superhero movie that Steven Spielberg might have made in the 80s. The movie’s greatest strength is its stars. Asher Angel as the young Billy Batson, Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman and Zachary Levi as Billy/Shazam, make this movie work. They are the heart of the film, in a movie that’s just as much about family, as it is about being a superhero.

Like all good 80s movies, this one does not shy away from the PG-13 label, in fact there are a few moments that it leans into it harder than one might expect, with some truly scary moments that might be too much for an audience that is much younger than the label.

Because the movie is not out till April 5th, this review is brief and vague but don’t let that fool you, DC Comics and Warner Brothers have a hit on their hands. Shazam! charts its own course and while rooted in the DCEU with wonderful references, at the same time, it’s completely its own. David Sandberg knew exactly how to take the source material and bring it to life in a way that feels fresh, fun and yet grounded in heart the whole time. Shazam! is rated 4 out of 5 stars!

Grading on a Curve

I think this is a must read from my good friend John.

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I’m going to speak honestly with you for a moment about the Marvel©™® movie franchise. I won’t take too much of your time. I value you, and who you are, but I think we need to have this talk.

I’m a fan, generally speaking, of the Marvel©™® movies. I know it’s stale at this point to heap praise on the franchise. It’s also stale to point out which ones you rank in what positions. It’s tiresome, really, and goes down the rabbit hole I pondered recently about what motivates us to rate, as opposed to discuss.

Back to the point at hand, Marvel©™® gets graded on curve. People at large, at least the ones who are devoted enough to record and write their opinions to share, are viewing Marvel movies largely through the prism of other Marvel©™® movies.

This Is the Issue

To be clear, Marvel©™® has

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Captain Marvel – Review

MV5BMTE0YWFmOTMtYTU2ZS00ZTIxLWE3OTEtYTNiYzBkZjViZThiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODMzMzQ4OTI@._V1_Listen to The 602 Club and Cinema Stories reviews!

In the eleven years since Iron Man hit the big screen to spawning Marvel’s cinematic comic universe, the the call for a female lead movie has increased as its popularity has grown. That time is now, as Marvel introduces Captain Marvel, their most powerful hero, on the brink of Avengers: Endgame.

The movie opens with Vers, a member of the Kree Starforce. She’s plagued by dreams of another life, one that seems familiar, but she cannot place. He mentor Yon-Rogg, continually lectures her about her emotional state and how her emotions and memories are holding back her true power. The Supreme Intelligence (an artificial intelligence for the Kree people that is a collection of all their greatest minds) reminds Vers of this same thing, her power can be taken away, just as it was given, if she does not learn to fall in line, control her emotions and follow orders. On top of all of this, there are the shapeshifting Skrulls, the sworn enemies of the Kree who are seen as terrorists, infiltrating planets clandestinely to turn them against the Kree.

If all of this seems like a lot, it is. The beginning of the movie is disjointed and disorienting. It takes a while to catch everything that is happening, who is who and how it all fits together. It’s also not helped by flashbacks to Veers previous life on Earth. This is the single biggest problem with the movie. The prehistory of Vers (Carol Danvers), is one of immense hardship, a bad family, constantly being told she’s not good enough or will never make it, always being put down. Her past life is struggle.

The issue is, that this theme of struggle seems incongruous with what we see in the present. There is never a situation that Carol is in, that she cannot handle. In fact, it’s all pretty easy for her. Even when her powers are taken away, she is able to beat up everyone in the room.

Q7ZGDNHQCRF4RAI4YNGUNV344EHer struggle for identity is also a frustration. This should be the core of the movie, the question of, “who am I.” She’s a woman without a past, that is tortured with memories that don’t make sense, yet you never feel that. Honestly Veers and Danvers are pretty much the same. There is not a shift in characterization or tone, it is all one note and that note is, “I’m too cool for school.” In the end, the lead character ends up being the least interesting person on screen.

This is accentuated but the fact that she is surrounded by good actors on every side. Samuel L. Jackson is back as a younger Fury and he’s great. You truly believe this is a man that’s confronted with his first alien encounter, that this is his first step into a much larger world. Ben Mendelsohn steals the show as the Skrull Talos. Every time he is on screen, he’s electric. Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau is the surprise scene-stealer. Her portrayal of Danvers’ best friend is heartfelt and emotional..

Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson, both are de-aged in the film. At first, it is off-putting, as it does not look completely believable. Gregg unfortunately will never look right, but Jackson does begin to look better throughout the film and some scenes are better than others. Unfortunately the inconsistency draws your attention to something the filmmakers want you to be able to forget, but never can.

Captain Marvel never reaches the heights of Marvel’s best. There aren’t stand out action moments that you’ll walk out of the theater talking about. The lack of narrative and thematic cohesion, plus the lack of a strong arc for the main character put the movie firmly in middle of the Marvel pack, it’s neither a train wreck or a stand out, it’s just kinda there. What’s most disappointing is not feeling like Carol Danvers is anything other than a powerful pawn being placed on the Marvel board for a movie that’s not her’s. Carol Danvers deserved better. Captain Marvel is rated 3 out 5 stars.

Queen’s Shadow – Review

91JhTQBZyMLThis review originally appeared on The Star Wars Report.

Attack of the Clones vaulted all of the characters from The Phantom Menace forward by ten years, leaving a gap for fans to wonder what happened in that time period to each of them that returned. One of the biggest changes was for Padmé, who had gone from being Queen of Naboo to its representative in the Galactic Senate on Coruscant. E.K. Johnson has now given fans something they have wanted for years, a book devoted to Padmé, her handmaidens and the time transitioning from planetary to galactic politics.

Connections

The strongest point of Queen’s Shadow is the way Johnson is able to flesh out the relationships that we see Padmé have with other senators in The Clone Wars as well as Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. In The Clone Wars, we were introduced to people from Padmé’s early days as a senator like Rush Clovis and Mina Bonteri, which Johnson is able to finally illuminate their first interactions. There is little more exciting than seeing the connective tissue between the films and the animated series made tighter.

Other relationships from the senate are highlighted as well. We are shown why Bail Organa and Mon Mothma become some of Padmé’s closest allies in the senate. It goes a long way to understanding just how close the Organa’s were to Padmé, so that when they take Leia as their daughter in Revenge of the Sith, you can think of no one better to raise her. It also helps with understanding why Leia would feel like she felt her mother as a very young child, since her mother had been to Alderaan and stayed in the palace before, which one assumes was not just a one time visit.

Johnson is also able to make the connections to the milieu of galactic politics which leads to what is seen in Episodes II and III. She shows the way that Palpatine is already starting to control things, behind the scenes, as he keeps Padmé away from the anti-slavery committee, knowing that if she’s there, she’ll move things in a direction he doesn’t want. Johnson also shows how relevant the Prequels are as she accentuates the problems of galactic politics that’s swayed more by factions, news outlets and self interest more than what is right.

The last major connection is that of the handmaidens. Johnson is finally able to show the interworking of this group that should satisfy the most ardent Padmé fan. The way this group to talented and dedicated women work together to protect and take care of Padmé and each other is inspiring.

The Book

By the end of the book, the story does come together well, but the way that it gets there is not as cohesive as it could be. Even half way through the book, it seems to lack a clear through-line, story wise. In many ways, it feels more like vignettes from Padmé’s first year as a senator than a connected story. The thematic elements of Padmé transforming from queen to senator are there and done well, but something just feels like it’s missing.

The best example of this is the story about slavery on Tatooine, which feels like it will be a major thrust of the story early on and then just peters out unsatisfyingly. The book also has an ending that makes you think there will be a sequel, but also doesn’t feel like it fits completely with how the main trust of the story wrapped up.

In all, Queen’s Shadow is an enjoyable read that allows fans the opportunity to understand better the character of Padmé, who she is in The Clone Wars and beyond. In fact it even helps lay the foundations for her emotionally, that explain the why and the how of her relationship with Anakin. It’s this, on top of the connections made with other parts of the Prequel era that lead to a rating of 3 out of 5 stars.

The Kid Who Would be King – Review

the-kid-who-would-be-king-new-film-posterIt’s been ten years since Joe Cornish has directed a film and let’s hope that after this we will not have to wait ten more for another. His latest movie, The Kid Who Would be King is an utterly delightful retelling of the Arthurian legend in a modern setting. This film feels like the Amblin films from the 80s, full of heart but with a poignant message to boot.

Men Without Chests 

Morgana, Arthur’s half sister, who was banished to the bowls of the earth has awoken and makes ready her return to rule the surface world. It seems the hollow, selfish, greedy society that we’ve fostered are the antidote to the magical bonds that have bound her for thousands of years. The word hollow is used to describe us a few times in the film and it brought to mind C.S. Lewis’s, The Abolition of Man and his worry that we are creating, what he dubbed, men without chests.

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

We’ve raised a few generations and asked them to forgo the ideas of good an evil as too simplistic. All foundations of virtue and chivalry are gone. In their place we extol  meaningless celebrity, praise virtueless virtue-signaling and honor the honor-less. Our world has hollowed out and we wonder why it’s on the verge of collapse.

The beauty of this film is that it reminds us of what true virtue actually looks like. Merlin tells kids the code of Chivalry that all knights live by,

  1. Honor those you love
  2. Refrain from wanton offense
  3. Speak the Truth at all times
  4. Persevere in any enterprise until the end

Alex, from the beginning of the movie embodies these ideals. He’s already living them out. Like the Arthur of legend, he brings those that were enemies together, making them allies in a noble cause. It’s not because of his bloodline or birthright, but because of his choices. His dedication to the code, even before he knew the code is what has made him worthy of Excalibur. The Kid Who Would be King reminds us all that there are principles of righteousness to live by and that to save ourselves, we need to remember that before it’s too late.

The Existence of Evil

Merlin has another great line in the movie about evil and how it tricks us into hating each other, so that we’re too busy fighting each other to fight it. This brings to mind Charles Baudelaire’s quote, “…the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” Leave it to a children’s movie to remind us of one of the biggest problems of our time, we believe in no absolutes, therefore the foundations for virtue are gone and so is our ability to recognize true evil. Morgana’s awakening has actually happened because of this very thing. The greed, self-obsession and pride has lead humankind to embrace vices as virtues and evil as good and they are what she feeds on. The world is topsy-turvy. The movie’s answer is to return to following the code, a code that recognizes the absolutes of good and evil, because without them it’s difficult to recognize one from the other.

The movie paints a picture of our world that feels very much like what the Apostle Paul describes in Romans chapter 1. Paul talks about the way we ought to live and the film mirrors in some ways his answer. “The righteous shall live by faith.” The code of chivalry is but a small part of this, but it’s pointing in the right direction.

The Movie

A movie with kids is always a toss-up if it will be good. It can be difficult to find a group of child actors that can all deliver well, consistently. Each of the young actors here is actually good. They will remind you of the young Harry Potter cast, which is a compliment. Rebecca Ferguson does not have a lot of time on screen as Morgana, but she is very effective in the one’s she has, at least until she becomes the CGI monster. Patrick Stewart yields most of his time as Merlin to Angus Imrie, who plays the younger version of the character. They work in concert to bring to life one of the most famous wizards of all time with a fresh, new take.

Joe Cornish has crafted a movie that does truly bring to mind the films of the 80s but with the effects of modern times. In fact, the only real let down in the movie, effects wise, is the Morgana creature at the end and by that point it’s too late for it to truly impact the film negatively. The one thing the movie is missing is a John Williams’ style soundtrack. If this movie had, had that, it would have been the cherry on top of an already tasty sundae.

The Kid Who Would be King is the perfect movie for families to share together. It brings back the adventure and fun without neglecting important themes that parents and kids can discuss long after the film is over. Movies like this need your support, so take friends and family and enjoy. This movie is rated 4 out of 5 stars.

 

Best Books I Read in 2018

history-books

51AX-4koEFL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_It’s a name we usually associate with William Wallace since what we know of him comes mostly from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. He’s the one that betrays Wallace in the film but there is so much more to the story. With the release of Outlaw King this year, I finally pulled this off the shelf to read everything that was missing from Chris Pine’s movie. It’s an incredible read or intrigue, murder, medieval warfare and a life dedicated to creating a free Scotland. This book is just brilliantly written, keeping you invested at every turn. I highly recommend this!

81OnyWJzGtLThis was also a pick up because of Damien Chazelle’s movie based on this biography. The film had left me wondering if Gosling’s characterization had been correct, well it was. Neil was a complicated man, whip smart, yet reserved emotional, to a fault. Hansen weaves the tale of Amrstrong’s life, personally and professionally very well. Heroes are never perfect and it’s an important lesson, driven home to perfection in this bio.

 

91qWWm0iVMLI’ve liked all her previous Strike mysteries but Rowling takes a different tactic in this one and it’s a welcome change. The book still revolves around a murder but the focus is much more on the characters this time. Both Strike and Robin’s personal lives are in the forefront and after three books with them, it’s nice to see all that growth start to pay off with some big changes for both of them.

 

A1UZFooN1dLJonah Goldberg has done it again and this time he traces human history to show just how special what’s happened in the West has been. It’s an extensive look and the “why” of tribalism and why it is now rearing it’s ugly head once again. Even though I do like this book a great deal, I did struggle with his approaching the subject from an atheistic foundation. There were times where I felt it actually hurt his arguments. In the end it’s still very much worth your time.

 

SOLO - A Star Wars Story MOST WANTED Cover Ultra Hi ResolutionFrom my original review, “Carson’s world building on Corellia is excellent. She adds to the understanding of the White Worms gang, Qi’ra’s background with The Silos, other crime syndicates on Corellia and the idea of droid freedom from Solo. What makes this book so good is the way it adds to the film and expands the experience through deepening the understanding of the characters and the life they had before the film. Most Wanted is highly recommended.”

 

sex-in-a-broken-world-original-imaf6z7ytkzxnftqThe world has broken sex. It doesn’t take much to see this is the case. Just watch TV for five minutes and almost every commercial will use sex to try to sell you everything from cars to gum. Paul David Trip breaks down the degradation of sex and helps show us the ways to redeem one of the most misunderstood gifts from God. Honestly, this is a must read.

 

the-kingdom-of-speech“Where does speech come from?” This is the question that Tom Wolfe brilliantly tackles in The Kingdom of Speech. He brilliantly rejects the idea that speech is something that could have naturally evolved, at every turn answering objections to his premise. This is one of the most thought-provoking books I read this year and cannot recommend it enough.

 

THEM-_BEN_SASSE__s1343x2048

Sasse cements himself as one of America’s best thinkers who also happens to be a politician. He addresses the reasons for the slow decent into tribalism and why we are so consumed with an us vs. them mentality. He doesn’t just diagnose the problem but also looks for ways to overcome it before it’s too late. I didn’t rank this list, but if you can only read one book in 2019, make it this!