Book Review: Attack of the Clones by R. A. Salvatore


Author:R. A. Salvatore
Title: Attack of the Clones
Publication Info: Random House Publishing Group, 2002
Summary/Review:
Like its predecessor, this book is an improvement on the film it novelizes. Primarily this is due to the fact that it includes a lot of scenes where minor characters get fleshed out, such as Shmi and Lars and Jango and Boba Fett, as well as some deeper insight to Anakin’s relationship with Obi-Wan. Presumably these were in early scripts but were cut to prevent the movie being 5 hours long. There are scenes that I wish had made the cut in the film, such as when Padme brings home Anakin to meet her family.  It is much better at developing their relationship than any of the scenes that made it into the movie.  Unfortunately, all that painfully bad dialogue of Padme and Anakin expressing their anguished love is also present in the book (plus the author seems creepily obsessed with describing Padme’s beauty).  So this is no masterpiece of literature but it does offer some things that you don’t get from the movie.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Muppets from Space (1999)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: Muppets from Space
Release Date: July 14, 1999
Director: Tim Hill
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Jim Henson Pictures
Summary/Review:

If a pastiche of The X-Files, with a soundtrack full of 70s funk classics, that also acts as an unnecessary origin story for Gonzo the Great appeals to you, this movie will be your jam. For the first time since The Muppets Take Manhattan, this is an original story rather than a Muppet retelling of a classic story.  This is also the only Muppet movie ever, out of the 11 made thus far, that is not a musical, excepting some Muppetized covers of the aforementioned funk songs.

Like the other 90s Muppets movies, Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Rizzo (Steve  Whitmire) take the lead roles.  Kermit (Whitmire) is still the leader of the Muppet family who all share a large house in this movie. Characters introduced in the short-lived 1990s tv series Muppets Tonight, Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) and Clifford (Kevin Clash) make their movie debuts. The basic plot involves Gonzo receiving messages from his alien family while a government agent, Ed Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), tries to capture Gonzo.

I noted in my review of The Muppet Movie, that The Muppets pioneered a style of self-referential, ironic humor that became widespread in the 1990s, and by the late 90s/early 2000s had really played itself out (see The Emperor’s New Groove for a notorious example). Unfortunately, the Muppets have fallen victim to the worst of 90s comical excess in this movie with cringe-worthy moments of Hulk Hogan making a threat to his wrestling foes and Katie Holmes appearing as her character from Dawson’s Creek. Rob Schneider and Andie McDowell have bigger parts in the movie which shows they were really scrapping the bottom of the barrel for human cast members.

Nevertheless, there are moments of great hilarity in this movie, and when avoiding pop culture references, Muppets from Space can be great, anarchic fun.  It is clearly the weakest of all Muppet movies, but don’t let that stop you from watching it at least once.  After it’s still the Muppets, and the Muppets on their worst day are still pretty great.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Treasure Planet (2002)


TitleTreasure Planet
Release Date: November 27, 2002
Director: Ron Clements & John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I’ve heard of steampunk and cyberpunk, but I guess this movie is sailpunk, since it involves sailing ships traveling through space.  The retelling of Treasure Island in an alien setting has some fun features: Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes skysurfing, John Silver (Bryan Murray) is a cyborg, the captain is the anthropomorphic cat, Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), and a shapeshifting creature named Morph (Dane Davis).

But outside some impressive visuals, Treasure Planet doesn’t go far enough in reinventing Robert Louis Stevenson’s story as a space opera (and believe me, I just watched Treasure Island and Muppet Treasure Island, so I’m very familiar with the basic plot points that are repeated in all three interpretations. The movie soundtrack also features songs by John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls that does nothing but date the movie to the early 2000s.

Treasure Planet isn’t bad, per se, but it had the potential to be so much more if the filmmakers had embraced the weirdness rather than playing it safe.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Meet the Robinsons (2007)


Title: Meet the Robinsons
Release Date:
March 23, 2007
Director:
Stephen Anderson
Production Company:
Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Lewis (Jordan Fry), a 12-year-old orphan with a talent for inventing, creates a device that scans the mind for lost memories. After the memory scanner seemingly fails at a science fair, a 13-year-old time traveler from the future named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman) tells Lewis he needs to protect the device from the Bowler Hat Guy (Steve Anderson), a literal cartoon villain with a twisted mustache. They travel to the future where Lewis meets Wilbur’s large and eccentric family while continuing to fight against the Bowler Hat Guy. Lewis finds himself with a feeling of belonging for the first time ever with the Robinsons, although naturally he cannot stay in the future.

There are a number of fairly obvious twists in the plot and some dark moments involving the sentient bowler hat.  The movie tries hard to be clever but it often misses the mark, and I found myself groaning more often than laughing. The whole film seems like a failed attempt by Disney to make a Dreamworks-style animated film. The whole thing stinks of self-congratulatory mediocrity.

Rating: **

Book Review: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray


Author: Claudia Gray
Title: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice
Publication Info: New York : Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019.
Summary/Review:

Continuing my daughter’s fascination with the Star Wars universe, we read this novel which is a prequel to the prequels. It tells the story of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi on an assignment several years before the events of The Phantom Menace. The central part of the story is that neither master nor apprentice feels that they have bonded.  In this story they end up in conflict with one another over following the rules and yet that conflict brings them closer together.

This book is complex for a Star Wars story with the events arranged around palace intrigue as well as issues of corporate influence on government and the enslavement of people.  The book has some interesting twists (I didn’t expect who would be the villain) and introduces the eccentric Jedi Rael Aveross, an old friend of Qui-Gon who is serving as a Lord Regent to a young queen.  I really like the character development in this novel of both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as well as the many new characters (members of the royal court, corporate agents, and even an interesting pair of jewel thieves who ally with Qui-Gon).  It makes The Phantom Menace all the more depressing for sacrificing opportunities for great character moments to bland CGI special effects and comic relief.

Favorite Passages:

“It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch—it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.”

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Jurassic Park (1993)


Title: Jurassic Park
Release Date: June 11, 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Amblin Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Well, I can scratch another movie off the list of movies that everyone has seen except me.  Decades ago, I picked up Michael Crichton’s novel and read it it one day despite the fact that I found it EXTREMELY stupid.  Thus I had no interest in seeing the movie adaptation.  But I saw it was available for a limited time on the new Peacock streaming app, so I finally decided to give it a chance.

As you must already know, Jurassic Park is the story of a dinosaurs brought back to life from DNA found in mosquitoes preserved in amber.  John Hammond (Richard Attenborough, in one of the best developed roles in the movie, managing to make an arrogant tycoon sympathetic) gathers the live dinos in the titular park on an island off Costa Rica.  In order to get assurances to his investors, he invites paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and mathematician Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) to preview the park and give it their endorsement. Hammond also sends his grandchildren Lex (Ariana Richards ) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello) as Tim Murphy on the trip.

Things, as you’d expect, go wrong.  Despite the important guests attending the demonstration, almost all the staff of Jurassic Park leave on a ship that very day for some unexplained reason, including the large security staff we see at the beginning of the film.  And, an intense (but brief) tropical storm strikes the island. And, computer programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight, in a cringe-worthy performance of a slovenly villain who actually constantly cackles) steals dinosaur embryos and sabotages the park’s computer system.  For some reason that makes no sense he also makes his escape by driving through the dinosaur enclosures and promptly gets eaten.  The hubris of cloning the dinosaurs should have been enough to have things go wrong without the layering of stupidity and coincidences that pepper this film’s plot.

I like Steven Spielberg, and this movie definitely reflects one of his strengths: realistic special effects that bring fantastical worlds to life.  I give points to the movie for doing that so well.  But Spielberg’s genius is usually found in the humanity of his film’s characters and their relationships.  Jaws is full of great, scary shark moments but it succeeds because Brody, Quint, and Hooper are such fully-realized characters and their camaraderie is the heart of the movie.

Jurassic Park doesn’t do this well at all. There are too many characters for one thing, and many of them are hastily sketched or pigeon-holed to serve one function. The relationship that grows among Alan, Tim, and Lex is one of the movies strengths, but even that is colored by the heavy-handed messaging that “Alan must learn to like children!” There were a lot of moments of forced “comic relief” that go over with a thud. Overall, I see a lot of missed opportunities for good character moments which is more disappointing than if they didn’t try at all.

I also thought that a couple incidents of the dinosaurs being shown to be sick was going to play a part in the resolution of the plot.  And what happened to the stolen embryos? Oh, and I recall that the dinosaurs reproducing was more significant to the plot of the book, whereas it really had no bearing on the plot of the movie. Maybe these threads are covered in the sequels, but I’m not exactly eager to rush out and watch them now, because this movie was not worth the wait.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Tron (1982)


Title: Tron
Release Date: July 9, 1982
Director: Steven Lisberger
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions | Lisberger-Kushner Productions
Summary/Review:

I never saw Tron before even though I was in the key demographic for the movie when it was released. The movie is on the surface incomprehensible, but in reality it is the most basic of stories in which the good guys fight the bad guys for freedom.  It’s just layered under so much technobabble that it’s easy to feel that you’re missing something deeper.  There are some feints at having a message of fighting the dehumanizing affects of capitalism, but at the end the hero becomes the CEO of a tech company, so maybe not.

David Warner plays Dillinger, the evil tech company executive who shuts down access to the company’s mainframe to our hero program.  Warner also plays Sark, the personification of the command program within the computer. Both Dillinger and Sark are reluctantly subservient to the Master Control Program (MCP), the sentient operating system hell bent on world domination. Programmers Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Dr. Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) want to regain access to their projects in the mainframe, so they bring in ex-employee-turned-video-arcade-operator Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) to hack the system and expose evidence of Dillinger’s wrong-doing.  Flynn is almost instantly downloaded into the mainframe’s cyberspace.

Flynn must save and restore the cyberspace with the help of Alan’s security program named Tron (Boxleitner) and Lori’s input/output program Yori (Morgan).  The famous Tron lightcycles make for a great visual effect and set piece, but sadly are only a small part of the movie.  Much of the film is technobabble and characters moving from point to point to move the plot along.  Bridges plays his character as if he was Han Solo becoming a nerdy hacker.  The rest of the cast is kind of flat. I expect they were told to act like emotionless computer programs which is accurate but not very engaging.

Rating: **

Book Review: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks


Author: Terry Brooks
Title: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Publication Info: New York, NY : Del Rey Books, 1999
Summary/Review:

My daughter is really getting into Star Wars now, and I told her we should read some of the books together. She decided she wants to read the novelizations of the films in episode order.  I remember liking the novelizations when I was a kid too.  Back in 1999, after being disappointed by the movie, a friend recommended this book to me because it was written by a well-regarded fantasy writer, Terry Brooks.

Then, as now, I enjoy the novel more than the movie.  Maybe it’s because it has time for scenes that provide greater depth to the characters and their relationships than seen on screen.  Maybe because Brooks does a good job of providing the thoughts and points of views of several characters.  Maybe it’s because Jar Jar is so much less annoying in print.  At any rate, reading a Star Wars book is fun.

Rating: ***

Book Review: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone


Author: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Title: This is How You Lose the Time War
Narrator: Cynthia Farrell and Emily Woo Zeller
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, [2019]

Summary/Review:

This novella features letters exchanged by a pair of agents – Red and Blue – on opposite sides of a war where they each travel through time to manipulate events in a way to harm the opposing side.  The initially snarky and boastful letters soften over time as Red and Blue realize they are falling in love.  The novel relies on poetic language and experimental writing styles (the authors wrote their sections of the book in response to one another much like the characters).  Call me a philistine, but for all that creativity, I still found the book to be rather boring.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)


Title: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Release Date: February 17, 1989
Director: Stephen Herek
Production Company: Interscope Communications | Nelson Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie once 30 years ago, found it mildly amusing, and never thought to revisit it until now.  Surprisingly, it holds up better than I remember it.  The movie is basically dumb fun about a the titular high school kids, Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) who love heavy metal and slack off at school.  A time traveler from the future, Rufus (George Carlin), informs them that they must pass their history presentation and allows them to use his time traveling phone booth to study the past.

The basic plot involves Bill and Ted traveling to various historic eras and gathering up historic figures.  Some of the gags fall flat, but most of them remain humorous.  What surprises me is that the movie is rather wholesome considering it covers territory previously explored in much raunchier movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Weird Science. Bill and Ted also have a hilariously erudite vocabulary.  The characters can be very dumb but also very smart when it’s needed for the plot, and somehow it works.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure remains excellent cornball comedy from the 80s.

Rating: ***1/2