Book Review: Highfire by Eoin Colfer


Author: Eoin Colfer
Title: Highfire
Publication Info: New York : HarperPerennial, [2020]
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I received an advanced reading copy of this novel through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Eoin Colfer writes fantasy fiction primarily for the young adult audience, but this book is most decidedly not for children.  Nevertheless, the book is about an ancient dragon Wyvern, Lord Highfire (“Vern” for short) who has retired to the Louisiana bayou where he reclines in his La-Z-Boy wearing a Flashdance t-shirt and drinking vodka while watching Netflix. A series of incidents bring him together with a teenager named Everett “Squib” Moreau, who has a penchant for trouble but is trying to do his best. Squib eventually becomes Vern’s assistant or “familiar” despite the latter’s mistrust of humans.

Squib has the misfortune that the corrupt and sociopathic constable Regence Hooke is insistent on dating Squib’s single mother.  Squib gets into deeper trouble when he witnesses Hooke murdering a rival.  Hooke learns of Vern from following Squib and comes up with a plan to use the dragon to take out a New Orleans crime lord and take control of drug and arms trafficking.

Parts of this book are a delightful blend of fantasy and gritty, everyday life on the Louisiana bayou.  I especially enjoy the growing relationship between Squib and Vern.  Unfortunately, Colfer seems to revel in detailing Hooke’s cruel and psychotic mind.  It gets to the point where Hooke feels like he’s the main protagonist of the story and he’s not someone I want to spend a lot of time with.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: Damaged Goods by Russell T. Davies


Author: Russell T. Davies
Title: Damaged Goods
Publication Info: Virgin Book, October 1996
Summary/Review:

Many of the Doctor Who novels published in the 1990s were written by authors who either wrote for the original tv series or would go on to write for the revived series.  This novel is significant in that it’s author Russell T. Davies would go on to be the showrunner who brought Doctor Who back to our tv screens in 2005.  In common with the later tv series, this story is set on a council estate with a family named Tyler.

Much like in Andrew Carmel’s Warlock, a narcotic drug turns out to be an alien force.  In this case, cocaine contains an ancient Gallifreyan weapon called the N-form.  The weapon draws power from a pair of twins separated at birth who are connected by a vampiric waveform.  The whole plot is rather complicated, but it’s setting in the depression and poverty of Thatcher’s Britain is a well-formed world for the Doctor, Chris, and Roz to unlock a mystery and a human tragedy.

Rating: ***1/2

Other Doctor Who Virgin New Adventures:

Movie Review: The Black Cauldron (1985)


TitleThe Black Cauldron
Release Date: July 26, 1985
Director: Ted Berman and Richard Rich
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation |
Silver Screen Partners II
Summary/Review:

Taran (Grant Bardsley), a boy with dreams of the glory of battle is given the responsibility of caring for an oracular pig, Hen-Wen (Frank Welker). On his journey he’s distracted by Gurgi (John Byner), a creature who seems to be the illicit love child of The Lorax and Elmo (and maybe the ancestor of Dobby the House Elf), and Hen-Wen is abducted by the minions of The Horned King (John Hurt, channeling Emperor Palpatine).

Taran breaks into The Horned King’s castle and while helping Hen-Wen escape, he is imprisoned himself. He is released by fellow prisoner Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) who has a magical orb. Together they rescue another prisoner, a minstrel named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne), who has a magic harp.  Along the way, Taran picks up a magic sword and all three escape the castle.

They are reunited with Gurgi and follow Hen-Wen’s tracks where they fall into a whirlpool leading into an underground fairy kingdom.  They determine that they must destroy the powerful weapon that The Horned King seeks, the Black Cauldron. Now numbering six, with Hen-Wen and the fairy Doli (John Byner) on their quest.

I’m afraid of given away the plot of the first half of the movie.  But it’s hard to set up all the characters and plotlines going on here any other way.  It’s unfortunate, because with the surplus of characters, there isn’t much character development.  Eilonwy and Fflewddur Fflam don’t really do much after we’re first introduced to them except act as cheerleaders for Taran, and their magical objects play no role in the outcome of the movie.  After setting up needlessly complex interweaving plots, the end of their quest is rather anticlimactic.

For a Disney animated feature, The Black Cauldron is known for being darker and scarier than usual. And yet, the animation style is trademark Disney and there’s lighter, comic relief stuff everywhere that gives the film issues with tone.  I think they would have done better to adopt a bold, new animation style to match the high fantasy of the story and set it further apart from traditional Disney fare. As is the case with most 1970s/1980s animation, you have to imagine how this movie would’ve improved with the resources and TLC given to the Disney Renaissance films.  All that being said, it’s a moderately enjoyable story with a great lead character on a journey of discovery and should be enjoyable for parents and braver children.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Onward (2020)


Title: Onward
Release Date: March 6, 2020
Director: Dan Scanlon
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

I was looking forward to seeing this movie when it came out last month, but suddenly we weren’t allowed to go out to the movies.  Thankfully, the Disney company decided to release it to Disney+ this weekend.

Onward is set in alternate universe of mythical creatures – elves, centaurs, unicorns, cyclops, pixies, fauns, and the like – where long ago beings determined that technology was easier than magic and settled into a quotidian suburban lifestyle.  Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is an elf celebrating his 16th birthday. He never knew his father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), who died of an illness just before he was born and has been raised by his mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt).  Barley is an enthusiast for Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games which he believes are based on factual historic records.

Laurel presents the boys with a gift from their father that she’s held until they were both 16.  It is a magic staff with a gem and a spell that will bring Wilden back for one day so he can see his sons.  While trying to cast the spell, Ian gets distracted and is only able to generate his father’s legs before the gem disintegrates.  Barley determines that they must perform a quest to find another gem before the 24 hours expire.

I won’t go into the details and be all spoilery for a brand-new movie, but Ian and Barley indeed go on their quest.  As should be expected from a Pixar movie there are many clever gags drawn from mythical creatures, and the ultimate point of this journey is that Ian and Barley will discover more about themselves and one another.  And, of course, there are heartrending moments of familial love, so be prepared to weep.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Back to the Future (1985) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Back to the Future
Release Date: July 3, 1985
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Production Company:  Amblin Entertainment | Universal Pictures
Summary/Review:

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is the black sheep of his family.  While his parents and siblings are irredeemable losers, Marty has a cute girlfriend (Claudia Wells), rides a skateboard, and plays guitar in a band.  He also maintains an odd friendship with a mad scientist, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd).

One night, Doc invites Marty to help him out on his new project, a time machine … made from a Delorean.  Through a series of misadventures, Marty is sent back from 1985 to 1955.  After interfering with his parents’ first meeting, he faces the challenges of his future mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson), falling in love with him and helping his father, George (Crispin Glover), stand up to the bully, Biff (Thomas F. Wilson).  Meanwhile, the younger version of Doc must figure out how to get Marty “back to the future!”

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I saw this movie with my family in the movie theaters not long after its release in July 1985.  Then I saw it again in the theaters and then several times on VHS and cable tv.  But it’s probably been 30 years since the last time I watched it.  There was a time when this was my favorite ever made and “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News my favorite song.  But by 1989 when the sequels came out, I’d lost interest, and I’ve still never seen them.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered everything pretty well, as I really did see it a lot of times at an impressionable age.

What Did I Forget?:

Surprisingly, nothing significant.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

The casting is perfect, Doc Brown and Marty McFly, most notably.  But I think Lea Thomson and Crispin Glover deserve a lot of credit for being younger than Michael J. Fox and still convincingly portraying his parents.  Thomson as the teenage Lorraine is terrific at conveying both sweetness and a persistent horniness, while Glover is the ultimate geek.

I’ve also always been impressed with how everything that’s set up early in the movie gets paid off later on.  This goes for the main plots of when Doc Brown and Marty’s parents talk about their past, but also little details like  the clock tower, Marty’s uncle (a recidivist criminal) being in the playpen as a baby, or the Twin Pines Mall becoming the Lone Pines Mall.  This also may be the only time travel story ever told where changing the past makes things better.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

The depiction of Libyans as a pack of terrorists who smuggle uranium and travel around in a van with machine guns and bazookas is a nasty stereotype.  There are also a couple of instances of casual racism where Marty influences the future in a way that takes agency away from Black men.  The first is when he inspires young Goldie Wilson to run for mayor (which he would’ve done anyway). It’s also disconcerting that young Goldie says he’s going to clean the town up but in 1985 the city is in a state of decay.  I’m sure the filmmakers intended to show that most US cities had become rundown between the 50s and 80s rather than imply that it was because of a Black mayor, but the optics are bad.  The other scene is when Marvin Berry calls his cousin Chuck to let him hear Marty playing “Johnny Be Good.”  Again, it’s a gag because Marty is playing a song that Chuck Berry wrote, but I have just a twinge of uneasiness about it.

Is It a Classic?:

Most definitely.  Despite that fact that more time has passed since 1985 and today than 1955 and 1985, this movie hasn’t aged poorly.  Instead, it’s picked up a patina of nostalgia for two different eras of the past.

Rating: ****1/2

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with B:

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
  2. Best in Show (2000)
  3. The Big Short (2015)
  4. Breaking Away (1979)
  5. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

What is your all-time favorite movie starting with B?  What do you guess will by my movie for the letter C?  Let me know in the comments!

 

Movie Reviews: Frozen II (2019)


Title: Frozen II
Release Date: November 22, 2019
Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

The sequel to 2013’s extremely-popular Frozen, picks up some loose threads from its predecessor such as Anna and Elsa’s parents’ story and the origin of Elsa’s powers.  Elsa (Idina Menzel) is now comfortable with her magic, but uncertain if ruling as Queen of Arendelle is her destiny.  Anna (Kristen Bell) remains so concerned for Elsa’s well-being that she ignores her own pursuits.  Meanwhile, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) just wants to find the right opportunity to propose marriage to Anna.  And the sentient snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is learning about the world much like a child. He is also once again the movie’s comedy MVP with his many whimsical quips.

Wisely, though, Frozen II is a stand-alone story that is more of a true fantasy adventure than its fairy tale predecessor.  When the elemental spirits of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth drive the people of Arendelle from their city, Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and the reindeer Sven must travel north to an Enchanted Forest that has been trapped in mists since the time of Elsa and Anna’s grandfather. There they meet the Northuldra, a people inspired by the Sámi, much as Arendelle is a fictionalized Norwegian town.  Together they must work to solve the mystery of the elemental spirits before they are all destroyed.

The movie is a great adventure, with good subplots for all the lead characters.  The animation is absolutely gorgeous especially the depictions of the autumnal Enchanted Forest.  The music is good in that it serves the movie, although I don’t think anything stands on its own the way it did in Frozen.  At least I haven’t heard thousands of kids singing “Into the Unknown” the way they did “Let it Go.”  My favorite song is Anna’s “The Next Right Thing,” because it’s lyrics offer a great philosophy and it’s performed in one the movie’s most emotionally powerful scenes.  At the other end of the spectrum is Kristoff’s power ballad “Lost in the Woods” which is filmed as if Kristoff and a group of reindeer were in a 1990s boy band music video.  I’m not sure if I was supposed to be laughing.

Frozen II falls short of being as good as the original, but it is good enough to justify existence as much more than just a cash grab.  It’s definitely worth watching if enjoy emotionally-packed fantasy adventure with musical interludes.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Return of the Living Dad by Kate Orman


Author: Kate Orman
Title: Return of the Living Dad
Publication Info: London : Virgin, 1996
Summary/Review:

In this story, Berenice returns with her newlywed husband Jason to investigate what became of her father.  It’s long been believed that Admiral Isaac Summerfield turned coward in a space battle against the Daleks and died, but new evidence suggest otherwise. Berenice asks the Doctor to use the TARDIS to witness the battle and see that her father’s ship is sucked into a wormhole.  Following through, the TARDIS team arrives in a remote English village in 1983.

Isaac and his crew are not surprised to see the Doctor and Berenice, as they’ve been expecting them to arrive one day.  Isaac’s ship arrived 20 years earlier, and in the intervening years he’s opened a cafe and taken up the duty of cleaning up the messes left behind by UNIT and the Doctor himself.  With an Air Force base nearby with nuclear weapons, the village attracts a strange assortment of refugee aliens, paranormal investigators, and anti-nuclear protesters.  Of course, once the Doctor arrives, strange things begin happening as the TARDIS and several people go missing. There’s a mystery to be solved and a traitor or two in their midst.

Kate Orman is one of the best writers of Doctor Who and particularly good at getting at the humanity (or lack thereof) of her characters and their relationships.  It’s surprising that she’s never written for the television series like other New Adventures writers, but perhaps she’s just not keen on scriptwriting.  Nevertheless, aspects of the book are familiar to what would be picked up ten years later in the new tv series, such as the need to clean up after the Doctor’s adventures, and the nodding winks to fan culture.

Since this is an Orman novel, it also has approximately a gazillion characters and it does get hard to keep track of them all.  I kept forgetting the Doctor’s other companions, Roz & Chris, were even there, and their main plot is their getting romantically involved.  Berenice, who had left the Doctor in Happy Endings, is front and center and this book is very much setting up her own series of New Adventures that would start in 1997.  Indeed, in various media, Berenice Summerfield is still appearing in new stories through today.

 

Other Doctor Who Virgin New Adventures

Rating: ***1/2

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rating:

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)


Title: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Release Date: December 20, 2019
Director: J. J. Abrams
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd. | Bad Robot Productions
Summary/Review:

Non-spoiler review: The ninth and (probably not) last installment in the Star Wars saga is a good but not great movie. In addition to being a step down from the classic movie that preceded it, The Rise of Skywalker fails to be a fully satisfying capstone to 42 years of galactic adventures. Viewed on its own terms, though, it’s an entertaining adventure that offers a new and different of Star Wars film while still allowing  favorite characters to shine and for moments that recall this series’ lore.

Rating: ***

Related Posts:

BEWARE! A HUTT-LOAD OF SPOILERS BELOW

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83apjSbVV-o

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Star Wars Film Festival: The Last Jedi (2017)


In preparation for the release of The Rise of Skywalker, I am rewatching all of the previous Star Wars films in episode order.

Here’s my review of The Last Jedi, originally published December 22, 2017.

TitleStar Wars: The Last Jedi
Release Date: December 15, 2017
Director: Rian Johnson
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd./Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Last Jedi is a movie that that defies all expectations a Star Wars film, or action-adventure films in general, deliberately undermining genre tropes again and again. Whatever movie you expected to see after watching The Force Awakens, or what you imagined about what would happen to the Rebellion after defeating the Empire when you watched the original trilogy when you were younger, or what you may have read in the extended universe books, or even what you saw in the trailer for The Last Jedi, this is not the movie you were expecting.

This movie feels like a spiritual sequel to Rogue One, as again and again we see people sacrifice themselves to save the Resistance, yet those sacrifices end up being ineffective and it is an open question whether the Resistance can survive the loss of so many lives. We see the Resistance begin with a large fleet and finish with just a handful of people aboard the Millennium Falcon. The First Order suffers heavy casualties too – losing Supreme Leader Snoke, Captain Phasma, and at least two enormous ships – but they seem unaffected, relentlessly continuing pursuit under the monomaniacal leadership of Kylo Ren.

The movie is steeped in failure.  Rey fails to convince Luke to join the Resistance.  Rey fails to convert Kylo Ren and Kylo Ren fails to convert Rey.  Vice Admiral Holdo, after being vindicated for her plan to rescue the fleet against the Poe’s mutiny, sees that plan fail too due to DJ’s treachery.  One of the major subplots of The Last Jedi, where Finn and Rose go to the casino at Canto Blight to get a codebreaker (and end up with DJ) turns out to be a MacGuffin ending in complete failure.  Albeit, the whole sequence is valuable because I live Finn and Rose and their blossoming friendship, and the scenes at Canto Blight introduce a part of the Star Wars galaxy we’ve never seen before, the disgusting inequality at the root of all these wars.  As Yoda says, “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

While much of the ongoing saga of Star Wars is steeped in the greatness of the Jedi, and the Skywalker family in particular, as wielders of the force, this film challenges the notion of the great hero entirely. Kylo Ren bluntly informs Rey that she doesn’t come from anyone special, her parents were ordinary people, and I believe he’s telling the truth.  The most egregious flaw of The Phantom Menace, that certain people have midichlorians that make them more sensitive to the Force, is condemned as a heresy against the Force which flows throw all living beings.  Once again, Rogue One is the model here.  Success does not come from waiting for a great hero but by ordinary people working together. Even when Luke Skywalker finally makes his stand against Kylo Ren and the First Order forces, it is not the heroic moment we’re expecting. But it’s the heroic moment we need, as does the Resistance.  Rose Tico says it best “This is how we’ll win. Not fighting what we hate … saving what we love.”

If there’s one major flaw to this movie is that it runs too long.  Not that there’s anything I could suggest that could be cut out. It almost feels as if this story could be made into an entire tv series, expanding on the great characters and deep themes.

I’ll have to see The Last Jedi again – preferable when I’m not with children who need to visit the bathroom frequently – but I think this a movie that will reward repeat viewings.  I like a movie that makes me think, and The Last Jedi is an action-adventure space opera that deeply considers the realities of the human condition in an imaginary galaxy far, far away.  That, for me, is filmmaking that puts The Last Jedi among the best of Star Wars movies and the best of films.

Some stray things I loved/admired from The Last Jedi:

  • Chewbacca becoming the perfect father figure for Rey
  • Admiral Ackbar died tragically as result of … a trap
  • Rose Tico is no one’s depiction of an action hero, but she’s awesome in every way
  • R2-D2 guilt-tripping Luke with the old hologram of Leia
  • Sassy dead Yoda living up his afterlife by teasing Luke for his dramatics
  • Laura Dern as Admiral Hold is fascinating in a relatively brief appearance. In of the great ways that The Last Jedi undermines our expectations, we identify with the “hero” Poe in his mutiny against what we’re lead to believe is Holdo as Captain Queeg, only to realize with Poe that she was right all along
  • Another great misdirection is Supreme Commander Snoke, built up to be the next big bad, but ending up to be a deformed creature lounging in a Hugh Hefner robe who gets cut down in his arrogance.
  • Seeing Gwendolyn Christie’s blue eye through the crack of Captain Phasma’s helmet just once before she plummeted to her death
  • The allusion to Hardware Wars. Just beautiful
  • There’s a lot of humor in this film that is not distracting but builds on the movies themes and characterization (unlike the cheap gags in the prequel trilogy)
  • Bite me, porg haters.  They’re hardly in the movie at all, and dammit they’re cute!
  • So many stunning visuals – Paige Tico in the bomber, Skellig Michael, Snoke’s chamber, the salt planet Crait
  • Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac all impressed in The Force Awakens and really knock it out of the park in The Last Jedi. One disappointment is that there’s very little time with Rey and Finn or Finn and Poe on screen together.  I hope the three of them get to team up for the next film
  • Luke and Leia’s reunion.  Perfect played and filmed.  It breaks my heart that neither Luke nor Leia will be in the next film (albeit Mark Hamill may return as a force ghost).
  • I don’t envy the filmmakers having to find someway to explain Leia’s absence in the next film. There doesn’t seem to be any good options that will be respectful to Carrie Fisher and Leia’s character.

Rating: ****1/2

 

Star Wars Film Festival: The Force Awakens (2015)


In preparation for the release of The Rise of Skywalker, I am rewatching all of the previous Star Wars films in episode order.

Here’s my review of The Force Awakens, originally published February 20, 2016.

TitleStar Wars: The Force Awakens
Release Date: 2015
Director: J.J. Abrams
Summary/Review:

I was probably among the last people in the Star Wars-loving universe to see this movie, but it was worth the wait.  The Star Wars franchise is back in good standing with this movie that, yes, has great special effects and action sequences, but more importantly it has a good story, terrific acting, and heart.  While it was great that old favorites such as Han, Chewie, and Leia play an important role, I’m impressed with how the new characters Rey, Finn, and Poe slide so seamlessly into the Star Wars saga and the lead roles of the film.  And I’m really amazed by the acting ability of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega,  and Oscar Issac.  The future of Star Wars is in good hands and I look forward to the upcoming sequels and side projects.  While The Force Awakens isn’t quite good enough to unseat The Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars movie, I think it sits comfortable beside the original Star Wars in a tie for second.
Rating: ****1/2

Some Stray Post-Rewatch Thoughts:

  • The major criticism of The Force Awakens, repeated so often that its trite, is that it is a rehash of the first Star Wars film. People of made lists of similarities as proof, but I think that they miss the forest for the trees in their criticism, and thus the unique aspects of this movie including:
    • Rey is like Luke in that she is a young protagonist entering into a new world of galactic war and the use of the force. But unlike Luke who had a family support system, she is an orphan, abandoned as a child. She’s had to teach herself to work, fight, and survive and as a result is a more skilled and capable person than Luke. I think the “Rey is just Luke as a girl” argument misses the many fascinating details of her character.
    • Finn is unlike any character we’ve seen before. Stormtroopers in previous movies are literally faceless as we never see one remove their helmet in the original trilogy and they are clones in the prequel trilogy.  In Finn we have a character forced as a child to be a soldier choosing to leave that life behind because of its immorality.
    • People are disappointed that Han Solo has reverted to his youthful life as a smuggler seemingly negating the growth of the character in the original trilogy.  While it’s not overtly mentioned,it’s pretty obvious to me that Han is desperately looking for his best friend and brother-in-law, Luke, and using his skills as a smuggler as a means to that end.  And how anyone watch Harrison Ford’s performance in this film and deny the growth of the character, both in the original trilogy and in the intervening years offscreen, is beyond me.
    • The point of Star Wars (and in many ways Rogue One) is to destroy the Death Star.  Starkiller Base is a similar weapon to the Death Star and demonstrates how the First Order has come to rely on more firepower to compensate for the loss of the Empire’s widespread forces.  And yet it’s destruction is a minor subplot in the film, something so run of the mill that Han jokes “How do we blow it up?”  The real purpose of Starkiller Base is to add tension to our heroes duels with Kylo Ren and the question of how they will escape in time.