TV Review: Good Omens (2019)


Title: Good Omens
Release Date: 2019
Creator and Writer: Neil Gaiman
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Production Company: Narrativia | The Blank Corporation | Amazon Studios | BBC Studios
Summary/Review:

Having finished re-reading the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens, I binged the miniseries adaptation on Amazon Prime. It’s largely entertaining, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from watching it, but it’s a bit disappointing based on the source material and the talent involved in producing the adaptation.

The strength of Good Omens is the casting of David Tennant and Michael Sheen as the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale who team up to try prevent Armageddon.  The miniseries increases the focus on these two characters and their centuries-long friendship, which is a good decision because they are talented comic actors who fill their characters fully.

Unfortunately, the adaptation is almost too faithful to the book. Several scenes feature dialogue word-for-word from the book.  There is a lot of heavy foreshadowing of gags to come, and excess narration from Frances McDormand as God.  While the authors of the book enjoyed digressing into silly tangents featuring supporting characters, the straight adaptation of these scenes to tv just don’t work as well.  There’s too much icing on the cake!

Good Omens the novel was published in 1990.  While the tv series is not a period piece set in the 90s, there’s only a slight effort to update the story to the present day, so it comes off feeling dated.  I think the satirical take on pop culture tropes was groundbreaking in 1990, but has become commonplace in the ensuing decades, so that Good Omens the tv show is the victim of the success of Good Omens the book.

A ton of notable actors from the UK in the US appear as supporting cast and cameo roles.  These include Nick Offerman, Anna Maxwell Martin,  Jon Hamm (as the Archangel Gabriel, a role greatly expanded from the novel, and one of the strongest parts apart from Tennant and Sheen), Miranda Richardson, Michael Mckean, Bill Paterson, Mark Gattis, David Morrisey, Derek Jacobi, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Josie Lawrence.  Again, there is nothing wrong with any of these performances, but it often feels as if the creators of the miniseries weren’t ambitious enough to go beyond eliciting the reaction of “hey, there’s that funny actor I like doing something funny.”  No one really inhabits their roles the way that Sheen and Tennant do.

There is some promise in some of the lesser known actors, for example, Adria Arjona as Anathema Device.  She seems to be weighed down by having to do nothing more and nothing less than what was written for her character in the book.  Ironically, Anathema’s character’s life was defined by following the predictions written in a book by her ancestor, so it’s sad that Arjona was similarly constrained.

Okay, this sounds like a bad review.  But, again, Good Omens was a perfectly fine show to binge over a few days.  It’s only six episodes long, which may actually be one episode too long for the material, but nonetheless a worthwhile enjoyment.

 

Book Review: Good Omens


Author: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Title: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
Narrator: Martin Jarvis
Other books read by the same authors:

Pratchett:

Gaiman:

Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, 2009 [originally published in 1990]
Summary/Review:

Several years ago, I read Good Omens, and hearing the buzz about the new tv series adaptation, I thought it was worth revisiting this book in audio format, charmingly narrated by Martin Jarvis.  This was the first book I read by either author at the time of my previous reading.  It is no less than a satirical fantasy about the Apocalypse.  More specifically, satire of the religious beliefs around the End Times mixed with satire about quirky, middle-class English life (the biggest flaw of this book is that it can get bogged down in the “quirky, middle-class English life” bit, past the point of being funny).

The main characters of the book are the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, who have formed a partnership over the eons due to their both liking humanity for their own reasons, and thus wishing to avoid the end of the world.  Early in the novel, the son of Satan is born, and due to a mix-up by the Satanic nuns at the hospital, the baby is mixed up with another baby.  11 years later, when the Apocalypse is too begin, the child groomed to be an Anti-Christ is an ordinary boy, while Satan’s actual son is Adam Young of the Oxfordshire village of Lower Tadfield.

The plot shifts among  several characters. Aziraphale and Crowley trying to sort out the mix-up without getting in trouble with their Higher Ups (and Lower Downs, I suppose for Crowley?). Adam and his gang of friends Them get into esoteric mischief as Adam becomes aware of his powers.  Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – War, Death, Famine, and Pollution (who took over from Pestilence after the invention of penicillin) assemble and ride, picking up some Hell’s Angels along the way who give themselves names of things that annoy them. And Anathema Device is a witch who knows everything that will happen because she is the descendant of Agnes Nutter, a 17th century witch who wrote a book of accurate, but highly specific predictions. She is brought together with Newton Pulsifer, a nerdy bloke who seems to stumble into becoming one of the last Witchfinders for a paycheck.

A lot of it’s corny, and as I’ve said, sometimes the jokes are belabored.  Nonetheless, it’s a clever and funny work of two of the great fantasy writers of our age.

My original review from 2004:

A very silly book about the Apocalypse run amok. Sometimes the tongue-in-cheek writing style got a bit annoying, but there were always some clever bits to redeem it. While mostly a parody of Apocalyptical legend, there is also a strong undertone about good & evil and faith in a higher being. For all the comic cynicism, the message about God here is surprisingly positive.

Favorite Passages:

It is said that the Devil has all the best tunes. This is broadly true. But Heaven has the best choreographers


Crowley thought for a bit. “You must have had records,” he said. “There are always records. Everyone has records these days.” He glanced proudly at Aziraphale. “It was one of my better ideas.”

(As someone who works in archives and records management, I’m particularly amused that a demon invented records.)


The small alien walked past the car.

“C02 level up 0.5 percent,” it rasped, giving him a meaningful look. “You do know you could find yourself charged with being a dominant species while under the influence of impulse-driven consumerism, don’t you?”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: April and the Extraordinary World (2015)


Title: April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le Monde truqué)
Release Date: November 4, 2015
Director: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci
Production Company: Arte France (and numerous others)
Summary/Review:

This imaginative animated film created by a team of French, Belgian, and Canadian filmmakers presents an alternative history of the world with a steampunk vibe.  The prologue of the film shows scientist Gustave Franklin working on a serum to create invulnerable soldiers for Emperor Napoleon III in 1870.  Angered that Franklin has only been able to create talking monitor lizards, the Emperor has a fit that inadvertently causes an explosion killing them both. In this alternate history, the young Napoleon IV signs a peace treaty to avoid the Franco-Prussian War thus maintaining the French empire in Europe.

A montage zips the story forward to 1931, during the interim the world’s great scientists are kidnapped retarding technological development. Relying on steam technology, the French Empire uses up all the coal in the world and then denudes Europe of trees for the wood.  This alternate past depicts a gray world devoid of vegetation and full of polluted air, but filled with fantastical steam-powered vehicles and devices. In 1931, Franklin’s son Prosper “Pops” Franklin, grandson Paul, granddaughter-in-law Annette and great-granddaughter April continue to work in secret on the serum, achieving success, but interrupted by both the French Imperial police and then a mysterious black cloud shooting lightning bolts.  Pops is separated, and Paul and Annette appear dead, leaving April alone with their talking cat Darwin (by far, my favorite character) and the serum hidden in a snow globe.

Whew, that’s a lot of setup in basically the first 15 minutes of the movie, because now the film zips forward again to 1941 for the main story.  April, now a young adult, continues to work in secret on the serum.  Disgraced inspector  Gaspar Pizoni – a kind of bumbling version of Javert – continues to try to track down the Franklins, and blackmails young petty criminal Julius to work for him.  Julius saves and then befriends April and Darwin, ultimately having mixed feelings about helping Pizoni.  They are reunited with Pops kicking off an adventure that reveals the secret plans of the French Empire and the mysterious forces that have kidnapped the world’s scientists.

This is imaginative story which also works as an environmental fable.  It’s also interesting that this alternate history depicts 1941 as a time when Europe is dominated by a French totalitarian government where in reality France was under the thumb of Nazi Germany at the time.  It’s imaginatively animated and a clever story.  The one flaw is that the voice acting feels stilted. If I watch this again, I’d like to find the original French cast instead of the dubbed version, because I think that would work better.

Rating: ****

Comics Review: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor


Here are reviews of all nine volumes in the Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor series to date.

Author:  Al Ewing & Rob Williams
Artists: Simon Fraser, Boo Cook
Colorist: Gary Caldwell, Hi-Fi
Letterer: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
Title: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol. 1: After Life
Publication Info: Titan Comics (2015)
Summary/Review:

The first set of Eleventh Doctor comic adventures introduce a new companion (between the Ponds and Clara), Alice Obiefune.  I immediately love Alice, because she’s:

  1. a library assistance, and her job skills are shown as valuable on adventures with the Doctor.
  2. she’s a character who is depicted as grieving and depressed, and her storyline is handled accurately and sympathetically.
  3. she stands up to the Doctor’s condescending ways and challenges his assumptions.

There adventures include picking up another companion, John Jones, who is a thinly veiled David Bowie from the late 60s before he becomes famous.  Basically he’s there for running Bowie gags while the focus remains on Alice as companion.  They also visit with Robert Johnson in 1930s Louisiana, who happens to already be acquainted with the Doctor.  But the main conflict in various places in space and time is standing up to the evil SERVEYOUinc, and not always meeting their agents in chronological order.

The Eleventh Doctor comics are refreshing and fun, and I hope keep up the good work, because the Tenth Doctor comics kind of became as slog.

Rating: ****


Author:  Al Ewing & Rob Williams
Artists: Simon Fraser, Boo Cook, Warren Pleece
Colorist: Gary Caldwell, Hi-Fi
Letterer: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
TitleDoctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol. 2: Serve You
Publication Info: Titan Comics (2015)
Summary/Review:

This volume starts off with a terrific story of the Doctor figuring out how to escape the destruction of the TARDIS while repeatedly hopping backwards in time.  ARC joins the TARDIS crew for a distinctively odd trip of companions: grieving human, parody of David Bowies, and blob of something that’s not quite defined yet.  Other stories put the TARDIS Team in the middle of an endless war that threatens to capture Earth in collateral damage and the gravest threat yet from SERVEYOUinc, which appears to take over the Doctor. It’s a bit of a step down from the first volume, but still a rollicking good adventure.

Rating: ***


Author:  Al Ewing & Rob Williams
Artists: Simon Fraser, Boo Cook, Warren Pleece
Colorist: Gary Caldwell, Hi-Fi
Letterer: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
TitleDoctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol. 3: Conversion
Publication Info: Titan Comics (2015)
Summary/Review:

Another spectacular visual and storytelling device in the comics sees the four main characters split into different parts of the TARDIS, with distinctive art for each concurrent story.  The Doctor also goes through the humbling experience of having the TARDIS turn against him for his misbehavior.  There are also Cybermen in ancient Rome and a motorbike race on the Berlin Wall in 1976.

This volume ties up the threads in the SERVEYOUinc and Talent Scout stories, as well as the Jones and ARC, uh, arcs.  I look forward to reading more adventures of Alice and the Doctor.

 

Rating: ***


Author:  Si Spurrier & Rob Williams
Artists: Simon Fraser & Warren Pleece
Colorist: Gary Caldwell
Letterer: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
TitleDoctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol. 4: The Then and the Now
Publication Info: Titan Comics (2016)
Summary/Review:

A new story arc has the Eleventh Doctor being tracked down for a genocidal crime he can’t remember quitting. New companions join in the form of Abslom Daak, a rageful man with a vendetta against Daleks, and The Squire, a soldier who previously fought alongside the War Doctor. The plot is a complex muddle of things brought up from the Time War that probably don’t need to be explained, but it does feel like it’s going somewhere.

Rating: ***


Author:  Si Spurrier & Rob Williams
Artists: Simon Fraser, Leanrdo Casco, Warren Pleece
Colorist: Gary Caldwell, Arianna Florean, Nicola Righi, Azzurra Florean, Rodrigo Fernandes
Letterer: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
TitleDoctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol. 5 The One
Publication Info: Titan Comics (2016)
Summary/Review:

The pursuit of the Then and Now continues, with some revelations and a lot of confusion, and effort to be “epic” without really earning it.  River Song and The War Doctor and The Master all join the plot.  And that’s not all.  It’s okay, I guess.

Rating: **


Author:  Si Spurrier & Rob Williams
Artists: I.N.J. Culbard, Simon Fraser
Colorist: Marcio Menys, Gary Caldwell
Letterer: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
TitleDoctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol. 6 The Malignant Truth
Publication Info: Titan Comics (2017)
Summary/Review:

The Doctor’s secret revealed!  Shocking surprises!  Really?  I just wanted this storyline to finally be over.  It does finish up better than a lot of what preceded it, for what it’s worth.  I did enjoy the War Doctor getting to act as the main protagonist, and Alice being awesome.  She’s a great companion and deserves better stories.

Rating: ***


Author: Rob Williams, Alex Paknadel
Artists: I.N.J. Culbard, Leandro Casco, Wellington Diaz, Simon Fraser
Colorist: Triona Farrell, Gary Caldwell
Letterer: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
TitleDoctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol. 7: The Sapling: Growth
Publication Info: Titan Comics (2017)
Summary/Review:

A new storyline, with a new character – The Sapling – who is basically Groot with the ability to steal memories and cause genocide.  There’s a cool sequence where every year on Earth is happening at the same time and the Doctor and company have to take a double decker bus to 1968 where the people have erected a wall around their time. It’s much cooler in illustration!

Rating: ***


Author: James Peaty, George Mann
Artists: I.N.J. Culbard, Andrew Leung, Ivan Rodriguez, Wellington Diaz, Klebs Junior, Leandro Casco
Colorist: Triona Farrell, Stefani Renne, Thiago Riberio
Letterer: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
TitleDoctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol. 8 The Sapling: Roots
Publication Info: Titan Comics (2017)
Summary/Review:

The Sapling is growing, the Doctor and Alice are still missing their memories, and Ood Sigma needs help. They also visit a Memory Ark and a medieval village where the Sapling becomes a renown historical figure.  Good fun.

Rating: ***


Author: Alex Paknadel, Rob Williams
Artists: I.N.J. Culbard, Ivan Rodriguez, JB Bastos, Luiz Campello
Colorist: Triona Farrell, Thiago Ribeiro, Stefani Rennee
Letterer: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
TitleDoctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol. 9 The Sapling: Branches
Publication Info: Titan Comics (2018)
Summary/Review:

The finale of The Sapling saga.  Like all these comic storylines, my patience begins to wear thin with the plots as they go along.  But at least this one is only three volumes along.  There’s also a renegade member of The Silence known as The Scream behind it all, but it’s kind of a meh idea since I think the tv shows did all they could with The Silence.  Still some awesome Alice moments though.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017)


TitleThe Shape of Water
Release Date: December 1, 2017
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Production Company: TSG Entertainment | Double Dare You Productions
Summary/Review:

Set in Baltimore in 1962 during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water centers on Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who lives in an apartment above a derelict movie palace and works as a cleaner at a government research facility.  Her only friends are her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling commercial illustrator who shies away from conflict, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a co-worker who helps interpret for Elisa.

An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) captured in the Amazon by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is brought into the facility for research.  Strickland is cruel to the creature and the facility’s staff alike.  Elisa befriends the Amphibian Man and when she learns that Strickland plans to vivisect him, organizes a rescue with Giles and Zelda, and are aided by a Soviet spy acting under the name Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who also feels sympathetic toward Amphibian Man.

The story is a romance where the creatures considered “unsightly” – both Amphibian Man and Elisa – get their day (and yes, they totally have sex).  It also twists things around from classic horror films in that both Amphibian Man and a Soviet spy be heroic, while the American soldier is the villain.  More subtly the film plays upon racial prejudice and the Civil Rights movement occurring at the time, and discrimination against LGBT people through Giles.  Sally Hawkins performs terrifically and carries the film despite not speaking.

The movie feels very familiar.  It is, of course, a variation of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, and del Toro very directly based the Amphibian Man on The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  But like Stranger Things, it also draws a lot on 80s movies, particularly the many movies in which a unhuman character must escape a hostile government and forms a close bond with the protagonist (E.T., Starman, Splash, et al).  The mood and atmosphere of the movie sets owes a lot to Jeunet/Caro films like Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, and even lifts the idea of filling a bathroom with water by stuffing towels under the door and letting the faucet run.  There are similarities too with Dancer in the Dark in that the protagonist is working class with a disability and daydreams about movie musicals.  The closest similarity is to del Toro’s own work, Pan’s Labyrinth, each of which features a female protagonist engaging with fantasy elements set against the brutal reality of a historical setting (the Spanish Civil War and the Cold War, respectively).

I cite all these similarities not to say that del Toro is “ripping off” other movies, but that he is drawing on many influences and synthesizing them into a new creative endeavor.  For all it’s familiarity, The Shape of Water is a wonder to watch.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)


Title: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Release Date: November 16, 2018
Director: David Yates
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures | Heyday Films
Summary/Review:

This sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them reunites Newt Scamander with his friends Tina, Queenie, and Jacob for a new adventure largely based in Paris.  While the first movie was mostly a romp with unsettling danger bubbling in the background of the wizarding world, this movie foregrounds the growing conflict of Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and the wizards who wish to stop him.  A young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) recruits Newt (Eddie Redmayne) to go to Paris to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler) join in to catch up with Tina (Katherine Waterston) who is already in Paris looking for Creedence.

What follows is a jumbled mess.  The storytelling is very poor here, as the film throws in some interesting fan service (an appearance by the 600-year-old Nicolas Flamel, a flashback to Newt’s days at Hogwarts), but really makes no effort to tie it into a sensible plot.  Depp mails it in as a boring Grindelwald, Zoe Kravitz is wasted in an underdeveloped role as Leta Lestrange, and worst of all the returning characters are poorly used.  Tina and Jacob are minimized in their roles, and Queenie – one of the most delightful and loving characters in the first film – becomes evil? Early in the movie she puts a love charm on Jacob and later she joins Grindelwald, all so that she can marry a No-Maj, even though Grindelwald is vehemently racist against non-magical peoples. I get the point is that good people support autocracy when they’re desperate, but her motivations here are nonsensical.

There are some big twists at the end of the movie that don’t help make this mess of a movie any better.  There are more Fantastic Beasts movies to come, but I’m not looking forward to them.

Rating: *1/2

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis


Author: Connie Willis
Title: Doomsday Book
Narrator: Jenny Sterlin
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2000 (Originally published in 1993)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I first read Doomsday Book 16 years ago and it immediately became one of my favorite books and lead me to several other Willis’ novels. This novel begins in Oxford in 2054 where history students use time travel technology to observe the past.  Willis has written several loosely-connected novels and short stories using this same premise.

In this novel, undergraduate Kivrin Engle desires to study the Middle Ages, even though the time travel net has never been used to travel that far back in the past.  The leader of the Medieval Studies department is eager to make a splash by permitting Kivrin to go the the 14th century, and even bypasses some of the standard safety protocols. Kivrin’s advisor and mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, is frustrated by Medieval’s carelessness and deeply worried about what dangers Kivrin may face in the time of cuthroats and Black Death.

The stage is set for Something to Go Wrong, with the twist being that an outbreak of deadly influenza strikes Oxford, with the city placed under quarantine.  The engineer who ran the time travel net for Kivrin’s drop into the past is one of the first to fall ill, thus making it impossible to retrieve Kivrin.  Mr. Dunworthy ends up helping his friend Dr. Mary Ahrens care for the sick, and also watching Mary’s visiting nephew Colin, with whom he forms a paternal relationship.

Meanwhile, in the 14th century, Kivrin has also been stricken with influenza. In a state of delirium, she is brought to the home of a village near Oxford to the home of a minor noble family, and nursed back to health. Some of the best scenes illustrating “the past is a different country” involve Kivrin initially having trouble communicating with her hosts, despite her studies and a translator implanted in her head.  Kivrin also has a recorder imbedded in her hand, cleverly allowing her to look like she’s praying when recording her thoughts, and many passages of the novel are in the form of her journal entries.

Once Kivrin recovers from her illness, she forms a bond with the children of the household, the playful 5-year-old Agnes, and the more serious Rosemund, who at the age of 12 is already promised in marriage to a much older man.  Kivrin essentially becames a caretaker for the children, aiding the overtaxed Lady Eliwys, while being an object of scorn and suscpicion for Eliwys’ mother-in-law Lady Imeyne. It is rare to have a female protagonist in time travel stories, often for the practical reason that for most of history the life of women was severely restricted and dangerous.  But through Kivrin’s point of view, the reader gets an (admitedly fictional) look into the overlooked women’s domestic sphere of the Middle Ages.

Another key character in the medieval storyline is Father Roche.  The poor and uneducated priest is mocked by Lady Imeyne, but nevertheless is devout to God and the community.  Kivrin forms a strong relationship with Father Roche as well, and despite her own lack of faith, recognizes Roche as a good person. Father Roche by turn, sees Kivrin as an angel, and while literally not true, it’s easy to see why her sudden appearance and seemingly magical skills would be interpreted as such from his worldview.

There are a couple of other twists in the plot, that I won’t spoil here, although I will not that the source of the 21st century influenza outbreak is a genius plot device.  By and large, things don’t turn out well for most of the characters in both storylines.  And since Willis is excellent at developing the characters and their relationships, Doomsday Book is a heartbreaking novel.  Nevertheless, it is also uplifting, because it emphasizes love in the relationships (Kivrin and Father Roche, Mr. Dunworthy and Colin, and others) among people who are neither related nor romantically involved, which is surprisingly uncommon in fiction.

Doomsday Book is not a flawless novel and others have pointed out its anachronisms and the many coincidences in the plot that are just too neat and tidy.  I think what’s good about the book outweighs these problems for the most part. One distracting problem with this book is that Willis envisioned a future with the technology for time travel and implanting translators and recorders in the body, but she did not anticipate mobile telephones (even though they already existed at the time this novel was published).  Instead, people in the future Oxford story use video phones, a device that is found in a lot of futuristic fiction of the 20th century (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Until the End of the World for prominent examples).  This would just be a small quirk, but so much of the novel relies on characters needing to find a phone and not being able to reach others by phone that it becomes laughable at times.

Overall, this is a terrific book in the time travel genre and one with a lot of humanity and heart. And a future without mobile phones really doesn’t sound all that bad.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)


Title: Solo: A Star Wars Story
Release Date: May 25, 2018
Director: Ron Howard
Production Company:Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

Han Solo is one of the most beloved characters in movie history and in 4 movies (and a holiday special), he was portrayed by Harrison Ford, arguably the most popular actor of the past five decades.  A Han Solo movie without Harrison Ford is missing an essential element.  Not that Alden Ehrenreich can be blamed as he does an excellent job performing as a young Han, it’s just not possible for him to be the same character.

As one might expect from an origin story, a lot of familiar aspects of the Han Solo character are introduced here.  We see Han get his last name, meet Chewbacca(Joonas Suotamo) for the first time, get his blaster, meet Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and acquire the Millenium Falcon.  The notorious Kessel Run is even part of the plot.  Many of the movies set pieces are generic  or derivative action-adventure tropes.  Early on, landspeeders are used in a classic car chase, then there’s a railroad heist, and finally scenes of the Falcon dodging asteroids and a space creature reminiscent of Empire Strikes Back.

Where Solo works best is around the edges, where we see the people and events that shape Han Solo into becoming both cynical and self-interested and having a big heart with a weakness for the underdog.  The former is demonstrated by Han’s mentor/antagonist Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) who repeatedly instructs Han to not trust anyone.  Another important figure is Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han’s childhood sweetheart.  At the start of the film, we see them both trying to escape their home planet of Corellia, but Qi’ra is captured at a checkpoint.  Han serves in the Imperial Navy for three years with plans to go back to rescue her, but when they meet again, she has found her own way out, and it’s strongly implied that she’s done some unsavory things in the process.

Han’s heart is shown again and again.  He’s placed in a pit to fight Chewbacca to the death, but realizes that they are both prisoners and finds a way for both of them to escape.  A big twist in the film involves another antagonist Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), and Han’s response to new knowledge is very telling.  Even Han’s final confrontation with Tobias is one that’s filled with tears, rather than celebration.

Solo has a lot in common with the other Star Wars Story, Rogue One, in that it shows the People’s perspective of the galaxy rather than one of royals, knights, and generals.  Imperial officers are typically unquestionably evil, but the one who recruits Han has a tender moment where he calls Han “son.”  Of course he also promises Han that he’ll be flying starships, so it’s very telling when the movie jumps ahead three years to show Han in a battle, on foot.  Deconstructing the myth of Imperial efficiency, the battle is depicted as a mess with no clear objectives and the officers having nothing more to offer than catchphrases.  Also like Rogue One, one of the best characters is a droid.  In this case Lando’s companion Elthree (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who speaks the truth that has been evident through all the Star Wars movies: droids are treated as slaves and need to be liberated.

The movie never seems to decide whether it wants to be a romp or to delve into the more serious undertones of poverty in the Empire and what that drives people to do.  As a result the movie is a bit uneven and not as good as it could be.  Nevertheless, the acting is strong, the humor is sharp, and Solo is generally an entertaining movie.  It’s a worthy addition to the Star Wars saga (and certainly better than any of the prequels).

Rating: ***

Book Review: Christmas on a Rational Planet by Lawrence Miles


Author: Lawrence Miles
Title: Christmas on a Rational Planet
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1996.
Summary/Review:

This is the first Doctor Who novel by Lawrence Miles, who would later go on to be one of the leading writers of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, introduce the Faction Paradox, and co-wrote the history of Doctor Who series About Time.  But in this first novel, Roz is trapped in a town in New York in 1799, Chris is trapped in the TARDIS with someone trying to kill him, and secret socities are worshipping Satan and the like.  The book is interesting at parts, but also just weird in ways that makes it hard to follow.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Unicorn Store (2019)


Title:The Unicorn Store
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Director: Brie Larson
Production Company: The District
Summary/Review:

This movie directed by and starring Brie Larson is about a girl named Kit who grows up enjoying princesses, fairies, and rainbows and yearns to be an artists. But when the professor at her art school disapproves her Lisa Frank-style painting, Kit flunks out of college and is forced to move back in with her parents.  Suffering from depression Kit decides that she has to become a responsible adult and takes a temp job.  Some of the funniest scenes are basically Kit cosplaying at adulthood, and finding the people in the office is are also neither mature nor have it all together. (And 20+ years after being a temp myself, I had to laugh that temps are still expected to make lots of photocopies, and are complimented for being good at it).

Kit receives strange invitations which lead her to The Store where The Salesman offers to fulfill her dream of owning a unicorn.  The Salesman is played by Samuel L. Jackson (who had such great chemistry with Larson in Captain Marvel)  who plays against his tough guy persona, but still manages to drop in some profanities.  In order to earn the unicorn, Kit must provide her a home, food, and a loving environment (meaning she has to work out her diffrences with her parents).

Kit takes on the first task by hiring Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) from a local hardware store to build a unicorn house.  Virgil is also in a low-level job for which he feels he has not talent and is uncertain about his future, and it appears he takes on the seemingly absurd task out of curiousity more than anything else.  But Kit and Virgil form a bond and their friendship begins to help them grow and change.  Kit also gets the opportunity from her creepy boss to work on an ad campaign, which gives her a chance to use her artistic talents.

The unicorn plot could’ve gone in some predictable ways.  Either The Saleman could’ve been a scam artist or Kit could’ve been delusional.  But I’m glad that the story went another way entirely. The premise of the movie is basically having the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope be the main character and then justifying her place as a real person.  After all athletic boys are allowed to become jocks when their men even if they no longer play sports, and the itnerests of nerdy boys are well catered to for adult men, so why not make a space for women who still love unicorns and rainbows.

The cast in this film are great, especially Athie and Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford as Kit’s parents.  Nevertheless, I felt the humor was just a bit off and the movie was less satisfying than it had the potential to be.

Rating: ***