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Thrawn – Review

thrawn12f-2-webThis review originally appeared at The Star Wars Report.

It is said that to create a compelling villain an author must make them sympathetic in some way. Villains never see themselves as such, as with the rest of us, they believe they are doing the right thing. Timothy Zahn, in his new book Thrawn, has given us just that; a villain that believes he’s doing what he must to save his people and possibly the galaxy itself from an evil worse that the Empire. Thrawn is a masterpiece in subverting the readers expectations, especially in light of Star Wars Rebels. Many readers will come in expecting the ruthless, cold and calculating character they know from the show, yet that is only one side of the multifaceted Chiss. Zahn has created the most nuanced Imperial to date allowing readers a both, insider and outsider’s look at the Empire.

Breaking the Mold

One of the true highlights of the book is this theme. Both Thrawn and Arihnda Pryce (who fans will recognize as the Governor of Lothal in Star Wars Rebels) must overcome the prejudices of the Empire throughout the story. The Empire is one of the most elitist and xenophobic places you will read about in literature. The Core systems in the galaxy have very little regard for aliens or people from the Outer Rim or beyond. Each of these characters has at least one of these strikes against them and Thrawn has both. Thrawn and Arihnda must overcome these prejudices. They never feel sorry for themselves or blame the system they are apart of, they simply overcome the obstacles in their own way, though determination, hard work and in Arihnda’s case, foul play.

It’s actually incredible to watch Thrawn continually prove his naysayers wrong and obliterate their preconceptions about him, time and time again. He uses all of his talents and skills to his advantage, making himself invaluable to the Emperor and the Imperial Navy. Strange to think one could learn a valuable life lesson from Thrawn, but he never allows anyone else to define his worth, value or to be held back from completing his objectives. Of course, full disclosure, Thrawn is not a perfect role model, but this was a great theme to see play out in the book.

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The Story

Thrawn is an expansive novel that covers a lot of time. It also allows us to get that look inside the Empire, but from the outsider’s perspective. Because Thrawn is not human, he does not always see things the same way and this sheds light on much of the corruption in the Empire as well as the inefficiencies. The story does a good job of sucking the reader in and created a subtle enough character with Thrawn that you are on his side during the book.

Zahn also creates, for this book, a new person to be at Thrawn’s side, his name is Eli Vanto. Think of him as the Watson to Thrawn’s Sherlock. This is a really fascinating character that, by the end of the book you’ll be begging Zahn for more.

As is mentioned above, the story features Arihnda Pryce. The book is set up to parallel her rise to power and Thrawn’s, seeing the different ways they overcome the obstacles to get where we see them in Rebels. She is not to be trifled with and her story is every bit as interesting as the title character. There are many familiar faces in the book, that fans would come to expect from a story tied in with Star Wars Rebels as Yularan, Grand Moff Tarkin, the Emperor and a few more are sprinkled in .

Conclusion

This review is not meant to be expansive and in many areas I wanted to be vague because it’s a book that just needs to be read and experience. Zahn has done exactly what I hoped for and written the definitive, canon book of Thrawn. It ranks up there with the very best of the new canon and is rated 5 out of 5 turbo laser blasts.

This review was completed using a copy of Thrawn provided by Del Rey.

The Cave

 

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I was talking to one of my favorite people the other day, Kesseljunkie (He’s my podcast partner on Aggressive Negotiations: A Star Wars Podcast as well as a myriad episodes of The 602 Club). As we so frequently do, we were discussing movies, specifically the DC films and the latest Justice League trailer and it brought something to mind.

There is a scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke is being trained by Yoda and he asks about a place that seems cold. Yoda says it is a domain of evil and that Luke must go in. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” to which Yoda responds, “Only what you take with you.”.

This got me thinking about how movies and movie theaters are a lot like that cave on Dagobah. Whenever we step into a theater to see a movie or que one up on Netflix we are not going in blind, we bring with us a plethora of preconceptions, experiences and prejudices into that cave that act as weapons for or against the movie which impact the film. Now, unlike Luke, there are certain “weapons” that are impossible for us to completely get rid of when we enter the cave. We cannot discard our prior experiences, but we can curtail out preconceptions and our prejudices, if we are self aware enough to know what they are. The reason this is important is because what we get out of a movie and whether or not we enjoy it greatly depend upon our own point of view. To put it another way, it greatly depends on what we bring with us into the theater.

The reason this struck a cord for me was the way in which this seems to directly apply to the geek culture that I am apart of. Every franchise has it’s diehard followers that will defend anything that comes out of that franchise no matter what it is. Then there are others that will seemingly hate everything a certain franchise does, just because it’s from that franchise. It’s par for the course in the 21st century where everything is one extreme or another and there seems to be no middle ground for anything. Hyperbole is the language of the day, films, tv shows, politicians and everything else all seem to be either the worst or the best thing ever.

Again referencing the conversation in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke asks “But how am I to know the good side from the bad?” and Yoda replies, “You will know. When you are calm, at peace.” We live not only in a world drowning in hyperbole but it’s accentuated by an eternal hype machine. So I want suggest a different path, like the Bendu in the recent Star Wars Rebels season and chose the way of the middle. We must unlearn what we have learned as we walk into the cave. Approach every movie on it’s own merits. As Yoda says, we should clear out minds of our expectations, preconceptions and presuppositions and allow the film to wash over us, absorbing what it’s trying to say and do first. If we get out of a movie, only what we bring to it, then it seems important for us to not enter with a bad attitude in the first place. The neutrality of the middle allows us to, I think, truly judge a film better.

For me personally, this has worked out thusly. I do my utmost to approach every movie on it’s own. I do my best not to prejudge too much on trailers, since many times trailers can be so misleading. I find it best to go in always hoping the movie will be good and allowing the finished product to speak for itself. It’s hard work disarming the weapons I can bring to bare, like previous films in a series, thoughts on a direct or actor, my own prejudices. I’ve found it to be a much more rewarding experience with movies, tv shows and even books to look at it without those weapons. It’s made it easier for me to see and understand the themes, character motivations and what each work is trying to say, which in turn allows me appreciate it more.

Now, does this mean I like everything? Of course not. But it does even help there, because when I don’t like something, this process allows me to be constructively critical about why and what I feel made something not work. With the self awareness that comes from trying to disarm all the weapons I might bring with me into the cave enables me to be, I think, more fair to the film, show our book and not resort to hyperbole, but break it down in a more constructive and valuable way. In the end, almost every movie, book or tv show is not going to be the best or worst thing ever and finding out the muddle in the middle is most of the fun.

Aggressive Negotiations Contest

ancontest1The Star Wars podcast that I do with John Mills is doing a review contest on iTunes. We are offering an ultra exclusive t-shirt to the winner. All you need to do is leave a star rating and review for the show in iTunes (only open to the US) to be entered in the drawing. Even those who previously wrote reviews will be entered. You’ll get the awesome shirt pictured here in your size. All for about 2 minutes to help out our show! Please share with as many people as you can and best of luck! Contest ends May 1st.

Aftermath: Empire’s End – Review

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This review was originally posted at The Star Wars Report.

Star Wars fans’ first taste of the end of the Empire came in Lost Stars as the Imperial characters in that book experienced the Battle of Jakku. It was the first taste of the end of all things for the Empire as seen in The Original Trilogy. Now, in Chuck Wendig’s final Aftermath book, Empire’s End, fans finally have the particulars of what led to the showdown between the Empire and the New Republic over this remote world.

Is This All There Is?

This series has followed two big characters, Rae Sloane and Norra Wexley. Each of these women has been moving closer to the other throughout the story, and it’s in this book that they come face to face at last. What’s most interesting is that even though they are on opposite sides of the war, they find themselves driven by the same thing, revenge. Each woman wants revenge on the person they believe has taken everything away from them. Norra desires revenge on Rae for attacking the New Republic and for brainwashing her husband to help carry out the plan. Rae’s object of revenge is Gallius Rax, who has taken the Empire she loves away from her. As these two women wrestle with how to get their revenge they see that they are truly not that different from one another and are even left with the same question plaguing them: “Is this all there is?” Is revenge truly enough to live for? Their answers will be different in the end, but the outcome will be the same. Revenge is not enough.

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Who is the Enemy?

Building off the previous theme is also this question, “Who is the enemy?” Norra will find that in the end, her understanding of the answer to that question was wrong and she must put aside her presuppositions about Rae, specifically, to fight the right fight.

What is most interesting is to see the way this struggle is mirrored on a galactic scale and how it will plague the sequel trilogy of Star Wars. The New Republic and Mon Mothma specifically have grappled with the challenge of identifying who the enemy is and what actual threat that enemy poses. All throughout the Aftermath series she’s longed to have peace and put war behind her. She might have been too late to act correctly if not pushed by her opponent in the upcoming election to take a strong stance on the security of the New Republic. Seeing the galaxy the way it is and not as she wants it to be is hard for Mon Mothma, but in the fight to bring democracy, the lesson that freedom is never free cannot be lost.

Finding the medium between safety and freedom is never easy. Sinjar says of Mon Mothma she is, “…a woman that wants to give democracy to the entirety of the galaxy. Freedom for all. Oppression for none.” It truly is the noblest of goals. The book does a good job of showing this struggle in all its messiness.

It is fascinating to see how this connects to The Force Awakens. Ancillary materials fill in the details of a senate that does not wish to see the First Order as a threat. Because of their lack of understanding of what’s truly happening in the galaxy, or worse, a blatant disregard for the signs before them, their blindness becomes their doom. A poignant lesson in any galaxy.

Spoilers begin after this point


The Good

The book has some things worthy of praise. The plot. The plot of the book is honestly what many expected from the first book. The portrayal of the inner-workings of the New Republic, seeing characters like Mon Mothma and Leia in their roles, trying to take care of the Empire while at the same time transitioning to a new galactic government, is excellent.

The book also continues one of the best things about the series, the Empire. The power plays and infighting between Grand Admiral Sloan and Gallius Rax as they try to find a way forward for the fledgling Empire are great. Another standout comes in the character of Rax and the revelation of his connection with Palpatine, Jakku, and what’s happening there, ultimately leading to the formation of the First Order.

The Bad

Empire’s End, like the rest of the series suffers from Wendig’s prose; it’s just frustratingly prosaic. There is also a lack of exposition and detail with major plot points, such as the Black Sun and Red Key crime syndicate’s involvement in the attempt to destabilize the galaxy or the full scope of Palpatine’s contingency plan. Each would benefit from more explanation and detail. There are also times throughout  where there seems to be a jump in the story and fuller connection of the dots would be welcome. This is so important because tie-in fiction that’s being written concurrently with a tv series or films will always come in second to those mediums. The major revelations will inevitably be saved for the next movie or episode, and because of this, it’s a struggle for the books to feel important. The Aftermath books suffer from this problem. There really are no major revelations in them and it leaves the series feeling a bit hollow. Therefore good writing is essential to making the reader feel they are being rewarded for their time and that the book is necessary to the canon.

The interludes continue to be an issue. Most of them are unnecessary. With all of the pre-release hullabaloo about Jar Jar’s fate, the actual reveal lacks any punch. The interludes that do work would be better served by being worked into the narrative in a more organic way. The space for the others could better be utilized to flesh out the main plot with more detail.

Most frustratingly, the character’s voices still sound off. Han and Leia do not sound like themselves. Tie-in fiction, when it is at its best, plays like an extension of the show or film it draws from. The best way for that to happen is to capture the “voices” of the characters so that the reader can hear the actor in their heads as they read. Unfortunately for this book, just as in Life Debt, this does not happen.

Conclusion 

Empire’s End is an improvement on the previous two books in the series. The plot is more engaging and seeing the end to the Empire is enjoyable. But with continuing prose, “voice” and importance issues, it’s still not one of the new canon’s best, landing somewhere in the middle with a rating of 2.75 downed Star Destroyers out of 5.

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Rogue One Novelization – Review


rogueonenovelRogue One
 brings to life the crawl from A New Hope, vividly showing us just how difficult that first victory against the evil Empire was and who carried out that harrowing mission. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has also been novelized by Twilight Company author Alexander Freed. He is the perfect choice as author, capturing all the grit of Star Wars‘ first true war film, just as he did in his Battlefront tie-in.

The goal of any movie novelization is to adequately represent the story on screen as well as give you all those little insights as only a book can. It’s here that Freed excels. The way in which he poignantly dives into the psyche of key characters gives the reader a greater understanding of the motivation as portrayed on screen, expanding the resonance of their actions and decisions. It’s wonderful to hear Jyn’s internal wrestling about her father, Cassian’s struggle as he contemplates his orders to shoot Galen or Mon Mothma’s feelings about the Rebellion and the course they are on. Each addition enhances the film and helps make this novelization worth the time and money.

The new canon of Star Wars introduced a new feature that has now been seen in the Aftermath books, Ahsoka and are featured in Freed’s novelization, interludes.  In previous books they have been used to varying degrees of success and the trend is much the same here. Some of the interludes do feel like they add to the story, but for the most part, they don’t feel necessary. Honestly the new canon authors should work harder to integrate this material into the actual flow of the stories or do without it. Here they feel more like interruptions, especially since almost everyone reading the book will be familiar with the flow of the movie.

The rest of the review can be found in it’s original location at The Star Wars Report.

George Lucas: A Life – Review

tumblr_o61hphwviy1us2txqo1_1280George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones.

George Lucas is one of the most enigmatic and fascinating people in Hollywood, although he’d probably resent that statement as his whole life has been about not being part of they Hollywood system. In this new, non-authorized biography, Brian Jay Jones traces Lucas’ quintessentially American story from humble beginnings to titan of the film industry.

The book is split in to 3 parts, Hope, Empire and Return, each on taking on a different part of George’s life and doing their best to synthesize a very full existence in a mere 550 pages (really only 470 as the last 80 pages are notations).

Hope is actually the the best section of the book, chronicling Lucas’ family and his early life as a greaser who found school boring and working for someone else even more so. This is the most formative section of the book, much of who Lucas became would be a direct result of things that happened during this period. The issues with his father (which would play in in his two biggest franchises), his desire to be completely free to do things his way and a car accident that would illuminate the truth of life’s fragility cementing his character. The reason for most everything else Lucas would do in his life could be traced back to his beginnings in Modesto, California.

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Empire tells of Lucas’ fortunes after American Graffiti as he struggle to bring his idea of The Star Wars to screen. Next to his youth, this is the the most integral to who Lucas would become. His experiences with THX-1138 and American Graffiti would set him on course to chart a future away from the influence of the studio and Hollywood system. Everything he did was a move to allow him to make movies without compromising his artistic creativity as well as building a place where others in the industry would be able to do the same. This same drive would also cost him dearly, as he neglected his wife in favor of making his movies and the neglect would cost him his marriage.

Return recounts the journey from the Original Trilogy to the Prequels and the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney. It’s the weakest section of the book, feeling too condensed and too reliant on the most superficial understanding of the Prequels as well as the work that truly went into them. It sadly glosses over the importance of The Clone Wars series as well, making it feel more like a footnote than the project that helped Lucas fall in love with Star Wars all over again. Also left out is the fight with Marin County which lead Lucas to giving up his dream of making the Star Wars sequel trilogy himself and the resignation of selling the company to Disney.

The one true strength in this section is the way it highlights the correlation between Lucas, his divorce and the story of the Prequel Trilogy, especially, Anakin and his choices. After reading this book one can see how much of himself he actually poured into the story. Anakin and Lucas both have the same fall on their way to Empire-building.

lucasWith the strength of the first two sections the book is recommendable, yet it’s not without it’s faults. Frustratingly the last section does devolve into most every criticism of Lucas in the Special Edition to Disney sale that everyone has surely read online. Honestly this can be attributed to the non-authorized nature of the book and the lack of interviews, which would have helped the last section of the book specifically. Peter Jackson is quoted in the book saying about Lucas, “I can’t help feeling that George Lucas has never been fully appreciated by the industry for his remarkable innovations…He’s the Thomas Edison of the modern film industry.” In some ways the book leaves one feeling this way as well. Lucas’ accomplishments in film, his tireless struggle for innovation and consistently putting his hard-earned money where his mouth is, should be given more due. Hopefully this is just the beginning of books to come out about Lucas and here’s to hoping the next is even more in depth, but Jones’ book is a good place to start and is rated 4 out of 5 Death Stars.

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Review

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“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”

These words are the first thing that anyone ever saw of Star Wars as the film opened in 1977 and now Gareth Edwards has imbued them fully in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Hope Anew

The Rebellion’s struggle just got worse, as it learns that the Empire has created a world-killing weapon named the Death Star. The Rebellion finds itself on the knife’s edge between hope and despair. The council of the Rebellion cannot decide what to do. Do they risk it all by trying to steal the plans, or do they resign themselves to defeat and despair? Jyn challenges the council, “What chance do we have? The question is what choice”. She implores the council to remember that if they do nothing then they’ve sealed the fate of the galaxy and that evil this great cannot go unopposed. It brings to mind Edmund Burke’s famous saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” She encourages them with a refrain Cassian Andor said to her earlier in the movie, “Rebellions are built on hope”. Hope changes everything, it reminds people that the way it is, is not how it has to be. Hope is the spark that, if kindled, creates the fire of change. Change is possible, but it takes sacrifice, determination and some times, lives to see it come about. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” It takes faith, faith that a difference can be made, which births hope and it’s all because the love of something greater than themselves leads them to live out the truth that, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

The beauty of the film is that hope is not just a figment of the heroes imaginations. The Force seems quite active, even without the Jedi. It’s moving in mysterious ways and bringing people together that can make a difference. This band of rogues does the impossible, one chance at a time, succeeding in their goal and setting in motion something that will see the end of the Empire.

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The Movie

Gareth Edwards made a Star Wars movie that feels completely different and yet utterly familiar, all at the same time. Like The Clone Wars, Edwards uses cinematic inspirations to pull in the war movie genre and make it a Star Wars movie, emphasis on the war. The nods to great war films of the past are all there and they work perfectly. On top of that you feel the “Star Wars” seeping out of every single frame. The Ghost from Star Wars Rebels can be seen at least 4 times, General Sydulla is called for over the coms at Yavin 4, the sets feel like they came out of a lost arc of The Clone Wars, Saw Gerrera has an important role and so much more. The point here is that Edwards lovingly knits together the history of the Prequel and the Original trilogy and it’s seamless.

Star Wars, when it’s at it’s best, is stretching what it means to be Star Wars by taking other genres and telling a story in the Star Wars universe that aligns with the themes of the saga. Edwards achievement is nothing short of incredible, the movie feels like the Maker’s fingerprints are all over it and it’s the highest compliment that could be paid to the movie.

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The characters are outstanding. K-2so is the best new droid since R2 and Jyn, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze and Bhodi are all welcome additions to the Star Wars canon. Darth Vader’s scenes are chilling (and let’s stop here and just geek out completely that Vader’s castle is finally on screen!) and perfectly played, just enough to leave you wanting more.

The music by Giacchino feels like a welcome addition to the Star Wars franchise, it’s much like The Clone Wars music and only references familiar themes in snippets yet that’s a good thing. The movie needed it’s own identity and the themes he created feel familiar and distinct, perfectly matching the spirit of the movie.

I’ll get personal, this movie is everything I wanted a new Star Wars movie to be. Pushing the boundaries of what it means to be Star Wars while at the same time respecting the history and the franchise as a whole. Here’s to hoping the rumors of Edwards wanting to direct a Kenobi movie are true. Rogue One is rated 4.5 upside down Death Stars out of 5.

Side note, if you did not read the book Catalyst by James Luceno, I highly recommend it. It is the lead-in novel for the movie and it does a fantastic job of filling in everything you’d want to know about Krennic, the Ersos and the Death Star.