I have recently begun a new podcasting adventure with my good friend John Mills called Aggressive Negotiations. It is a Star Wars podcast and yet not your usual Star Wars show. We do not cover any news or current Star Wars evens, we cover the things you talk about with your friends. We are just two guys who enjoy contemplating the silly, the serious and everything in-between about the Star Wars saga. I hope you will join us for our 30ish minute shows as we talk about a fun new topic each week. You can find us on our website as well as iTunes. Check us out, let us know what you think and help spread the word!
This is a list of the best books that I read this year in no particular order. There are some links to full reviews or a podcast so be sure to check those out as well. Comment and let me know what you read so I can add to my list for 2016.
The Sun and Other Stars
I feel in love with this book and it’s simple story of a small Italian town that is turned upside down when a famous European football star escapes to a villa just outside the city. Pasulka makes you feel as if you are in the seaside village of San Benedetto, as Italy comes alive around you. This is the perfect book for any time of the year when you wish to escape on an exotic vacation.
Six years after the success of the Lewis & Clark expedition, John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson dreamed of a Northwest empire along the Pacific coast. This is the true story of the three year journey that would end without an empire but inadvertently blazing the Oregon Trail. It’s a harrowing story of the wild frontier, survival and shattered dreams. Fascinating from start to finish.
I cannot add anything to my original review, “Christie Golden has written the finest book in the new canon with Dark Disciple. The book immediately feels like an arc of The Clone Wars. In many ways it is a stinging reminder of just how much life was left in this show and the power it had to tell amazing stories. My sincere thanks to Dave Filoni and Pablo Hidalgo for continuing to find opportunities to get The Clone Wars content to fans any way they can. Dark Disciple is now my gold standard for what this new line of canon books can and should be. This book is rated a perfect 10.” Be sure to check out The 602 Club review and interview with author Christie Golden.
Becoming Worldly Saints
Maybe the hardest thing to do as a follower of Christ is to live in the world but not of it. With so many books swirling around the Evangelical world, many with opposing views on how to live as Christ has called, Wittmer wisely and carefully shows that enjoying the life we’ve been given and radically following Jesus are not at odds. “Careful Christian thinking holds these two truths in paradox, never allowing one truth to drown out the other, never allowing the extreme position of one side to lead us to the other. To miss one side of this paradox or the other is to distort the beauty of Christianity.” Excerpt From: Michael E. Wittmer. “Becoming Worldly Saints.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/fBev1.l
Star Wars: Lost Stars
This may have been the biggest surprise of the year. Lost Stars was released on Force Friday this year and aimed at the young adult market. In the shadow of the much touted Aftermath, Lost Stars flew under the radar with no expectations and with that eclipsed Aftermath in both quality and praise. Gray weaves an expansive story that moves from before A New Hope to after Return of the Jedi all from the point of view of the Empire’s finest recruits. Next to Dark Disciple, this is the finest example of how to add to the Star Wars canon. Be sure to check out The 602 Club review.
Mary Doria Russell has long been a favorite author of mine and this year’s Epitaph was another feather in her cap. A work of historical fiction about the man behind the legend, Wyatt Earp. Russell has dug deep to research this book, giving it an authenticity and reality that will blow you away. This may be the closest you will ever come to reading the true story of the O.K. Corral and the people behind the famous shootout.
The Wright Brothers
David McCullough is back as he chronicles the Wright brothers determination to see a man fly. The ingenuity these men had as self-made inventors is astonishing. The “can do” spirit has never been stronger as they take advantage of every benefit American freedom offers to create the first piloted aircraft and make sure their names would be long remembered. Inspirational to the last.
I cannot add anything to my original review, “Go Set a Watchman set the world afire when it was announced. After years of rumors that Harper Lee had written another book and questions about if it would be published, the book’s final discovery continues to be followed by controversy surrounding whether or not Lee had been taken advantage of by her publisher. Regardless, the book is out and with society in upheaval again, it just may be the perfect book at the perfect time. In the story, Jean Louise (Scout) is home visiting from New York and what follows are vignettes on a theme. Each vignette builds to a crescendo as Jean Louise breaks the shackles of childhood to become her own person…Go Set a Watchman is a visionary book about the past yet it is just as relevant today. It’s an important read and well worth your time. I encourage everyone to wrestle with the themes because you just might find yourself changed in the end.”
The Inklings are the stuff of legend in the literary world and with giants like Lewis and Tolkien in their midst the other members are often overlooked. In The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski look at the lives of the four main members J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. They never shy away from the imperfections of each, giving a well rounded look at each man’s strengths and weaknesses and just what made this group so special. It’s a long read that is worth the investment.
The History Fan: Dead Wake.
The Mystery Fan: Career of Evil.
For the Star Trek Fan: Sight Unseen and Atonement.
The Young Adult Fan: The Sword of Summer.
The Non-Fiction Fan: Into Thin Air.
This is a list, in the order of release date, of the best films I saw in the theater this year. Titles with links will take you to the full review I wrote. Also be sure to look for the links to The 602 Club reviews of many of the movies on the list.
The live action remake was a true surprise. As I said in my original review, “Going into the movie, one would not expect much more than the basic story seen in the animated feature. What Branagh has done is create depth in a story that many have derided as nothing more than an old fashioned and sadly outdated tale. This simple yet elegant theme, ‘Have Courage and Be Kind’ is the heart of the movie…The greatest gift of this Cinderella is the reminder to the world that it takes the utmost courage to be kind, especially in the face of constant adversity. Most films give us sarcastic, mean-spirited people who use their painful experiences as excuses to treat people terribly. Crafted with a deft hand, though, Cinderella lovingly directs us to see that it’s easy to be cruel and almost impossible to be kind, unless you have courage.”
I have never seen any of the previous Mad Max films, but with the praise this movie garnered on it’s release it felt like something I should see. Thankfully I was far from disappointed. As I wrote in my review, “No movie in the last decade has been a better representation of the total depravity of the human race than Mad Max: Fury Road. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, caused by its hubris, humankind has returned to the dust, scrounging like the animal it believes itself to be. What is left is ruled by a demonic sadist with a proclivity for a heavy metal inspired wardrobe. This is survival of the fittest at it’s most extreme. This is a movie that shows in the bleakest of ways that humanity left on it’s own is truly it own worst enemy.”
This film’s mysterious marketing had me intrigued for a year and I was glad that the film did not let me down. For me it was the themes that really captivated my attention and my review pointed out a few. “There does seem to be a loss of perspective; thoughts of tomorrow have been replaced with an obsession over what can be accumulated or acquired for immediate pleasure. A mandate was given at the beginning of time to take care of the earth and steward it. We were meant to create and foster life all around us. Inspiration used tocome from places like NASA, where the impossible seemed possible. Where the undiscovered country of the future was just a shuttle ride away. Technology was about making the world a better place, not just a more convenient one. Tomorrowland reminds us that we are all in this together, and not just now, but for the generations to come.” Please check out The 602 Club review.
This may have been the biggest surprise of the year for me since I didn’t have high hopes after the mediocre Lost Word and awful jurassic Park III. What I wrote originally still holds up, “Jurassic World is fun. I’ve been a dinosaur fan since I was young and I love having them back in a movie that is good. There are moments that the movie does make you feel awe again, just as the original did. While at the same time reminding you just how scary these animals would be. I liked Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt. A lot has been made of whether or not Claire is feminist enough and I think if her character had been a guy, no one would complain about the characterization, so I have no issues with her. Jurassic World is a great popcorn movie with timely reminders of the dangers that not dinosaurs, but humanity are to ourselves and to the world when we forget our place.” Please check out The 602 Club review.
It’s a testament to Pixar that when they are on their game their movies can be the most heartfelt and moving you will see. I wrote, “Inside Out powerfully and emotionally helps illuminate for everyone the ways in which the worst things in our lives can actually become the best, sadness and joy going hand in hand. It’s here that complex emotions are born; things are never simple but a jumble of joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust.”
The story of an aging Sherlock Holmes that is making the slow slide towards dementia was one of the most powerful films of the year. “Mr. Holmes is the perfect antidote to superheroes, explosions and dinosaurs. None of these have been bad things, but Mr. Holmes stands above these with it’s reminders of the importance of community and truly knowing those around us and allowing ourselves to be known. Go see Mr. Holmes and revel in the quiet mystery of a film doing what the medium does at it’s best, teaching us through a good story and good characters.”
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
When you reach the fifth movie in a franchise the audience cannot be blamed for wondering if it can possibly be good. Let’s face it, on a whole, the more films in a series, the more likely one is to experience diminishing returns. Luckily, Rogue Nation could arguably be considered the best of the Mission Impossible series. Tom Cruise continues to fire on all cylinders, proving that he’s still a mega star, but it is Rebecca Ferguson that steals the show. She’s the best female protagonist in the series and thankfully will be back for the next mission. Please check out The 602 Club review.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
There is no cooler or more retro film than U.N.C.L.E.. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are terrific as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin in a prequel that sets up the hit show from the 1960s. Alicia Vikander continues to impress, she was phenomenal in Ex Machina and her she’s every bit a foil for both men. The soundtrack is the grooviest you’ll hear and the movie is just so much fun, start to finish. Rent it, buy it and let’s cross our fingers they are given a sequel. Please check out The 602 Club review.
This movie was a fascinating look at the creative drive of men and the ways in which we are terrible gods. Oscar Isaac is mesmerizing as an inventor that has created the first true A.I. and asks Domhall Gleeson’s character to administer the Turing Test to the android. What follows is breathtaking, with performances from Isaac, Gleeson and Vikander that are truly Oscar worthy.
This was a gem in a summer of superheroes and dinosaurs and it’s message was inspiring. “Hollywood is not particularly known for being overly pro-life in it’s films, yet Unexpected is. There’s a beautiful moment when Samantha and John are at the doctor’s office for their first ultrasound and she sees the heartbeat on screen for the first time and it becomes real to her, that there is a life inside her. It can be so easy to forget that since the baby is hidden, but as that window opens, so do her eyes to what’s truly happening; she carrying a human baby. Neither of these women planned for their pregnancy, yet each of them decides to do the best for that new life. John Lennon famously said that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans and that is exactly what happens to the characters in this film. Having a baby is never going to be convenient, but it is always going to be a blessing whether that’s to the biological parents or the adoptive parents.”
Bond is back and this time it feels a little more familiar. There is a sense that yes, Craig is more serious as Bond but that does not mean he can’t have fun. The action is spectacular, especially the opening sequence and the story wraps up most of the storylines that began in Casino Royale. I thoroughly enjoy Léa Seydoux as Bond’s new love interest, she the best Bond woman since Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This is a worthy successor to Skyfall and if it is Craig’s last Bond, a wonderful swan song. Please check out The 602 Club review.
Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of Eilis, an Irish immigrant who comes to America in search of a better opportunities. Just as she begins to build a new life for herself, she must race back home to face the past and her family. Saoirse Ronan is a vision in this film and the scenery in Ireland will leave you longing for a trip to the Emerald Isle. Small movies that are all about characters are sometimes hard to find so be sure to seek this one out.
There is no bigger movie this year than the latest film in the Star Wars saga. My review on this was a long one, but it boiled down to this, “This is not the best Star Wars movie, that honor still belongs to The Empire Strikes Back, but it is a better one than I initially thought. It has some problems in the pacing, lack of clarity in the story and themes as well as a death that still leaves me numb…I would recommend seeing the movie more than once, since the first time can be a little jarring with it’s fast-paced nature and important story points almost glossed over because of it. I’d give the movie 3.75 lost lightsabers out of 5.” Please check out The 602 Club review.
This movie tells the story of Joy Mangano who invented the Miracle Mop. David O. Russell is back with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro muses. I found the movie inspiring as Joy embraces the “can do” spirit of America and rises above the limitations that life, choices and family have put on her to become one of the most successful QVC sellers and a self-made millionaire. It’s not perfect, but it’s a strong movie with another stellar performance from Jennifer Lawrence.
The Big Short
I can say, unequivocally that this is the best film of the year. It is based on the book by Michael Lewis which chronicles the lives of the people that recognized the coming crash in the housing market that led to the financial crisis of 2007-2010. Seldom has a film portrayed the hubris of man in all it’s disgusting glory. If Gordon Gekko though greed was good then those responsible for the foundation of sand that the housing markets were build on put him to shame. It’s a compelling and brilliant film that tries to help the view actually understand the financial mumbo-jumbo so that the viewer walks away with a clearer picture of just what and who was responsible. In a world throughly distracted by social media, celebrity lives and technological trinkets, mass fraud never been easier and sadly the world only cares when it all hits the fan. The Big Short is a clarion call to everyone, this will happen again if we let it, so we need to wake up and demand that things change.
I was reminded that Love&Mercy was this year and it was clearly one of the best of 2015 with Paul Dano’s phenomenal performance. Be sure to seek it out! What were your favorite movies this year? Comment and let me know so I can put them on my “to see” list!
There are Spoilers in this review.
2013 was a massive year for the Star Wars franchise as George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney for four billion dollars. Yet the biggest surprise from the deal was the announcement of more Star Wars films in the Skywalker Saga, meaning the long rumored sequel trilogy would finally come to fruition. Since that time, fans have excitedly and trepidatiously awaited December 17th, 2015 for Episode VII. Anticipation built throughout the year as the movie’s coming was heralded by soup cans and action figures alike. The film’s release has seen a maelstrom of emotion from fans and critics as The Force Awakens has become the best reviewed Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, but the question is, “Is it really that good?”.
Themes and Story
As I have gotten older, one of the joys has been the realization that the Star Wars saga is about more than just good and evil, it was George Lucas’ way of giving a history lesson about freedom. The Original Trilogy was about how freedom is won back from a dictatorship, the Prequel Trilogy was about how freedom is lost as bureaucracy and corruption undermine a democracy and now the Sequel Trilogy looks to be just as timely.
It has been thirty years since the Return of the Jedi and the galaxy has seen the end of the Empire and the beginning of the New Republic. As the Republic has taken hold and a new generation has been brought up in relative peace, the idea of vigilance against evil has gone out of fashion. The Republic keeps it’s fleet close to home and the loss of the Jedi to Luke’s nephew’s turn to the dark side has left the galaxy vulnerable. It has given rise to the First Order, a regime even more fanatical and bent on completing the failed mission of Darth Vader and the Emperor, bringing “order” back to the universe.
The New Republic, unwilling to acknowledge the threat of the First Order, secretly sponsors the creation of the Resistance, lead by Leia, while publicly denouncing them. Leia is a child of war, understanding the price of freedom and is willing to sacrifice again for it’s continuation. Unfortunately there is resistance to seeing the First Order as more than a phantom menace in the senate and the correlation could not be clearer to the situation we face in the real world with ISIS, which has challenged the entire western world yet certain world leaders refuse to acknowledge the full threat.
Another correlating theme is that of recognizing evil and facing it. Maz Kanata, the thousand year old bartender says to Rey and Finn, “The only fight: against the dark side. Through the ages, I’ve seen evil take many forms. The Sith. The Empire. Today, it is the First Order. Their shadow is spreading across the galaxy. We must face them. Fight them. All of us.” She sees the First Order for what it is and calls it out, it is evil and it must be apposed. What a timely message. We live in a world that is unwilling to call out evil for what it is and confront it, but Maz is absolutely correct that it must be named and fought. In this way, The Force Awakens proudly upholds the tradition that George Lucas began in A New Hope.
As wonderful as the themes are in the story, they are not all completely fleshed out in the film. To get the full picture one must dive into The Force Awakens novelization, Before the Awakening or the Visual Dictionary to get everything I mentioned above. Director J.J. Abrams has made a Star Wars film that is truly faster and more intense. It flies at a breakneck speed and barely slows down to let the character breathe. Unfortunately this leads to some scenes that would have fleshed out the political landscape as well as the motivations of the villains on the cutting room floor. Honestly, it seems like an over-reaction to the Prequel Trilogy and it’s frustrating since the politics here are a crucial story point and resonant theme for the times in which we live. It’s still the thing I have the biggest issue with in the movie.
Star Wars has always referenced and mirrored itself as Lucas would use themes and motifs in both trilogies to create the saga’s tapestry. As this new trilogy beginnings it’s clear that the same thing is happening, yet it’s not as well done as before. Regrettably The Force Awakens is much more than a homage or layer of the tapestry, it is a remake of A New Hope. Plot points line up almost perfectly as you think about each film and exact beats from Star Wars are repeated in The Force Awakens. Frustratingly this means that there is absolutely nothing surprising in the new movie, if you have seen A New Hope then you will pick up on exactly where this story is going including the death of a major character as well as the use of yet, another super weapon. The movie is clearly more worried about appeasing fanboys than truly inspiring the next generation of fans.
The true salvation for this film is the casting. Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren are all phenomenal. They are the key to the success of this film as they immediately bring you into the story and it’s their performances that cover a multitude of cinema sins. By the end of the movie you will care about each of them and be so invested as to what will happen, you’ll be wishing Episode VIII was next month.
Alongside the new characters there are old favorites that have returned, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Peter Mayhew are all back. Ford has not been this engaging on screen in years and it seems he is firmly invested in doing justice to Solo, especially in light of his character’s demise near the end of the film. Carrie Fisher brings an understated grace to Leia which is a relief to anyone that’s seen her on the talk show circuit and Hamill has little more than a cameo, whetting the appetite of fans to know exactly what happened to Luke Skywalker.
Interestingly for me, it’s not the old characters or their stories that captivated me, it was the new. Sadly the meta knowledge of Ford’s desires for the Han character robbed me of the emotional impact it was suppose to have. The film’s adherence to the formula of A New Hope and The Phantom Menace where the old, wise character meets their end does the same since you can see his death coming for miles. There is also something that just does not seem earned in Han’s death, story wise it makes sense for the character of Han and Kylo, but it’s just lacking something for me personally. I find myself much more invested in the character of Rey and where she will go next. Daisy Ridley has cemented herself as a star with this performance which is good news for the rest of this trilogy.
Real Sets, Practical Effects
This has been the mantra of this movie since it’s inception. It’s a dig at the Prequel trilogy even though Abrams has praised the fact that without Lucas’ breaking every rule in his work on the Prequels, the new trilogy would not have been possible. Where this idea works best is in the character of BB-8. The result is astounding. I challenge anyone not to fall in love with this new droid and struggle to not name him their favorite as credits role. The way in which the onset effect and the sound effects work to create a fully realized character is incredible.
Where it did not work as well is with some of the creature design. The Happabore that drinks next to Finn on Jakku looks like a character from a Disneyland ride and the luggabeast that Teedo rides, lumbers at the pace of a desert turtle, making it the most impractical mount ever. In both places CGI would have been more effective in my opinion and more “real”.
With all of the incessant chatter about the practical effects, one of the best new characters in the film is CGI. Maz Kanata is an outstanding achievement in character design in the same way Gollum was in The Lord of the Rings. You truly feel like the character is on screen with Harrison Ford and it’ll leave you longing to know more about her history.
Strangely the CGI work at the end of the film is not as sharp as one would expect. The X-Wing battle above Starkiller base seems like an afterthought and looks muddled. The editing lacks the Lucas clarity in the geography of the setting and it’s one of the clearest examples of the magic he brought to the films truly lacking.
Another important piece that is missing from this new movie is the addition of exciting new ship designs. All the ships here are just variations on Star Destroyers, Tie Fighters and X-Wings and the new ships like Ren’s shuttle or the Resistance transport are either forgettable or just plain awful.
Sadly, there are also no fun alien cameos in the movie. Abrams seems preoccupied with creating new alien designs, which is fun but the lack of anything familiar in this area is a regrettable lack of connective tissue to the rest of the saga.
This is not the best Star Wars movie, that honor still belongs to The Empire Strikes Back, but it is a better one than I initially thought. It has some problems in the pacing, lack of clarity in the story and themes as well as a death that still leaves me numb. Furthermore, the movie lacks a score that is as strong as John Williams other work in the saga. There are a few nice cues and Rey’s Theme by far the strongest new musical motif, but you won’t find yourself humming anything as you did with the Imperial March, Duel of Fates or the Forrest Battle.
Seeing the movie four times has helped me to overcome a lot of the problems I still see and the performances of the new cast have me sold on this new trilogy. I would recommend seeing the movie more than once, since the first time can be a little jarring with it’s fast-paced nature and important story points almost glossed over because of it. I’d give the movie 3.75 lost lightsabers out of 5.
Be sure to check out The 602 Club’s episode on the film, you won’t want to miss it!
Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
December 17th, 2015 will be a day long remembered, it has seen the end of one era of Star Wars and the dawn of the next. With the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney came the promise of new films in the Skywalker saga and that promise has reached it’s fulfillment in Episode VII.
In this episode of The 602 Club host Matthew Rushing is joined by newly awakened Jedi Bruce Gibson, Darren Moser and John Mills to talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We discuss our Episode VII experiences, the new characters, old characters, Han’s death, abandonment, the villains, the history of a long time ago, what about R2?, humor, one quick thing, music and design, wrapping up with final thoughts and ratings.
The Force Awakens this week and in an effort to get ready for it The 602 Club has been covering the films and ancillary materials. If you want to be fully ready, check out each episode! All episode cards are linked, so just click the card or find them all in iTunes in the special Star Wars Feed.
I was recently asked to write the feature article in Metropolis Magazine for their Star Wars issue all about the upcoming movie The Force Awakens, which also includes an interview with Daisy Ridley. Here it is. Click the article to enlarge it.