Book Review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki


Author: Ryka Aoki
Title: Light From Uncommon Stars
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Shizuka Satomi is a world-renown violin instructor who has made a deal with a demon to trade the souls of 7 violin prodigies for success.  She has one more soul to collect and has returned home to Southern California to find a likely candidate.

Lan Tran is a starship captain who has escaped a galactic war with her family, and now operate a doughnut shop as their cover.

Katrina Nguyen is a teenage transgender girl who has run away to Los Angeles from her abusive family and supports herself making YouTube videos.  She also plays the violin.

Somehow not only are all these characters in the same novel, but their interactions create a heartfelt human story that transcends genres. Shizuka and Lan meet, share their strange histories, and strike up a romance. And of course, Shizuka takes on Katrina as her student, and yet treats her with such tenderness that it’s hard to believe she plans to sell Katrina’s soul to the Devil.

And that only scratches the surface of the brilliant, warm, funny, and creative novel!

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Time After Time (1979)


Title: Time After Time
Release Date: September 28, 1979
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Production Company: Orion Pictures
Summary/Review:

Time After Time is one of those movies I always liked as a child when it was frequently shown on tv. I was wondering how well it would hold up and I’m pleasantly surprised that it does.  The movie tells the story of 19th century author and futurist H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) inventing an actual time machine.  When showing off the machine to a party of fellow intellectuals, it is revealed that one of his guests is actually Jack the Ripper (David Warner).

The Ripper steals the time machine, and Wells follows him into the future arriving in San Francisco in 1970.  To Wells’ horror, the future is not the utopia he dreamed of but a place where the scale of violence is such that Jack claims he’s an “amateur.” While attempting to track down Jack the Ripper and prevent more murders, Wells forms a romantic relationship with bank employee Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen).

The movie does a really great job of blending together several genres – time travel science fiction, fish-out-of-water comedy, romance, and crime thriller.  Like a lot of time travel stories there are plot elements that don’t hold up to much scrutiny, but can be easily hand-waved away. This movie also has a great font of quirky trivia associated with it, such as:

  • Director/screenwriter Nicholas Meyer also wrote the script for another movie where time travelers arrive in present-day San Francisco, have a lot of fish-out-of-water comic experiences, and one of the time travelers forms a romantic relationship with a contemporary woman who ends up joining the time traveler.  That movie, of course, is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
  • Mary Steenburgen appeared in yet another movie where she falls in love with a time traveler and leaves to go with him, Back to the Future III.
  • Speaking about the Back to the Future franchise, the date on which Marty arrives in the past is November 5, which is that same date that H.G. Wells arrives in San Francisco.
  • Finally, Cyndi Lauper saw the title of this film in TV Guide and used it to write one of her classic ballads.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2021

Other Books Read By The Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Lesser Evil completes the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy of books that deal with our favorite Chiss military tactician’s early career. Thrawn must defend the Chiss Ascendency from dangerous outside threats as well as civil war breaking out among the ruling families. Jixtus, an agent of a mysterious people called the Grysk Hegemony, was behind the attacks on the Chiss described in the earlier books, but now is ready to face Thrawn in battle.  Thrawn must ally with an alien race and work against his own military, political, and family leaders to find a way to defend the Ascendancy against the more powerful Grysky warships.

The great thing about Zahn’s books is that they long ago stopped being about just Thrawn.  There are a rich collection of characters her including Thrawn’s mentor General Ar’alani, ship captain Samakro (who Marc Thompson voices to sound like Jack Nicholson), the young “sky-walker” or ship’s navigator Che’ri and her caregiver Thalias (both of whom have Force sensitivity which is key to the plot), an alien navigator-for-hire named Qilori (drink everytime that Qilore’s winglets twitch!), and in flashbacks, Thrawn’s friend Thrass who has the political acumen that Thrawn lacks.  I confess that I lose track of the many characters and plots, but nevertheless I do find it incredibly engaging to read.  And the book ends perfectly setting up the events at the beginning of Thrawn.

Rating: ****

 

Movie Review: Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)


Title: Everything Everywhere All at Once
Release Date: March 25, 2022
Director: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Production Company: AGBO | Ley Line Entertainment | IAC Films | Year of the Rat
Summary/Review:

I haven’t seen a ton of Michelle Yeoh’s work but I’m always impressed by her and I’m pleased to see her in this movie that is already being hailed as one of the best of the year.  It feels particularly groundbreaking to have a science fiction/action/comedy blockbuster center on a middle-aged Chinese immigrant woman who’s basically having a mid-life crisis.  Evelyn (Yeoh) is seeing her marriage to Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, most famous as the child star of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) crumble, her relationship with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) strained, and her relationship with her father Gong Gong (James Hong), recently arrived from China, was never particularly good in the first place.  On top of this, the family laundromat business is failing and under an audit by the IRS.

When the family go to meet with IRS inspector Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis, who I didn’t even recognize until I saw her name in the credits), strange things begin to happen.  Evelyn learns that she is a significant figure in the multiverse and has to use the talents from the parallel universe versions of herself to fight a grave threat to all of existence.  I don’t want to give away many details of this movie, but it is a story that works on many levels: a family drama, an absurdist comedy, an existentialist debate, and a martial arts action film.  Somehow this is a movie where the lowbrow humor of fight involving butt plugs can exist side by side with a scene in which a couple of rocks can make me want to cry.

I’m not going to say anything more, but I believe Everything Everywhere All At Once has earned all the praise it is getting and if you haven’t seen it, make plans to see it now!

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Free Guy (2021)


Title: Free Guy
Release Date: August 13, 2021
Director: Shawn Levy
Production Company: Berlanti Productions | 21 Laps Entertainment | Maximum Effort | Lit Entertainment Group | TSG Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) doesn’t know that he lives in a video game as a non-playing character (NPC), and seems content with living in a city where violent crime is routine.  The game, Free City, is a product from the company of melomaniac Antwan (Taika Waititi).  Game developer Millie (Jodie Comer) enters the game to seek out her source code that she believes Antwan stole from her, sometimes with the help of her former partner Keys (Joe Keery of Stranger Things fame). Meeting Millie prompts Guy to become more self-aware and evolve as an artificial life form, prompting a revolution among the NPCs.

I won’t go too much more into the plot as it’s one of those plots that gets too convoluted and doesn’t make much sense if you think of it too much.  The premise of this movie reminds me of The LEGO Movie and The Truman Show, but not so much that it doesn’t stand on its own. The real point of this movie is to see the charming Ryan Reynolds do action, comedy, and romance which he does well, and it features enough fun gags to make it worth the watch.   I was also interested in seeing Free Guy because I remember when it was being filmed in Boston.  Boston looks good as a video game setting and it was especially unnerving to see familiar Boston landscapes disintegrating in one scene.

Rating:***

Comics Review: Star Wars (2020- )


Title:  The Destiny Path
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Date: November 10, 2020
Writer(s): Charles Soule
Penciller(s): Jesús Saiz
Letterer(s): Clayton Cowles

Star Wars comics picks up from the previous run with stories set after The Empire Strikes Back. If you always assumed that Boba Fett immediately delivered Han Solo frozen in carbonite to Jabba the Hutt, you will also surprised that there were some challenges on his journey.  Also, Luke, Leia, and Lando return to Cloud City (under Imperial control), each looking for something. I kind of felt that unlike the earlier comics series where the stories seemed to be probable adventures of our favorite Rebels between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, that this is more of an attempt to retcon Star Wars.  But we shall see where it goes next.


Title:  Operation Starlight
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Date: April 6, 2021[
Writer(s): Charles Soule
Penciller(s): Ramon Rosanas, Jan Bazaldua
Letterer(s): Clayton Cowles

The Rebel Alliance is scattered across the galaxy and can’t communicate without being discovered by the Empire.  The solution may be found in an ancient droid and Lando’s henchman Lobot!  The series also introduces and interesting new antagonist in Imperial Commander Ellian Zahra, although I suppose her days are numbered since she never appears in Return of the Jedi. This is another good but not great Star Wars comics collection.


 

Title:  War of the Bounty Hunters
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Date: December 28, 2021[
Writer(s): Charles Soule
Penciller(s): Ramon Rosanas,
Letterer(s): Clayton Cowles

This Star Wars story kind of feels like something I would’ve come up with my Kenner action figures as a kid.  What if frozen Han Solo is stolen and is involved a big game of keepaway among Boba Fett, the Rebel Alliance, the Hutts, Qi’ra and the Crimson Dawn, and the Imperials lead by Darth Vader himself.  It’s the ultimate ludicrous crossover story, but kind of fun in a way.

Movie Review: Fantastic Planet (1973)


Title: Fantastic Planet
Release Date: 11 May 1973
Director: René Laloux
Production Company: Les Films Armorial | Ceskoslovenský Filmexport
Summary/Review:

Fantastic Planet is an animated film that seems made for late-night showings to an audience stoned of its gourd.  The movie is set and the planet Ygam where the dominant species are  the giant, blue, humanoid Traags.  They share the planet with the descendants of humans from Earth who are known as Oms.  Some Oms are kept as pets by Traags, but most live in the wild and are considered vermin to be exterminated by the Traags.

The story focuses on an Om named Terr who is adopted as an infant by a young Traag named Tiwa.  He is able to escape with her instructional headset and use it to share Traag knowledge with the colonies of wild Oms.  Using this knowledge, the Oms are able to begin to fight back and attempt to leave the planet.  The movie can be read as a metaphor for many things – racism, genocide, animal rights, or even the forces of nature.  The movie felt longer than its 71 minute run time and has a disappointing deus ex machina resolution, so this is less of a socio-political message and more of just a journey into the weird.

The pencil-sketch animation style reminded me of something I saw on children’s shows in the 1970s such as the “Pinball Number Count” on Sesame Street. The fanciful settings and the jazz funk fusion music are eerily similar.  I give it points for its visual imagination and funky grooves, but not much else.

Rating: ***

Recent Movie Marathon: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Ian Samuels
Production Company: FilmNation Entertainment | Weed Road Pictures | Wishmore Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I saw this movie described as “If John Green did Groundhog Day,” which I think captures of the gist of the movie but undersells the originality and charm of the movie. Yes, this movie does namecheck Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, and shares similarities with Palm Springs and other time loop movies. But as a teen comedy/drama/fantasy/romance it also uses the time loop trope to effectively examine the problems of young people ranging from dealing with grief to the fear of a future under climate change.

The movie begins with Mark (Kyle Allen) having already been in the time loop for some time and enjoying the godlike powers that come with knowing everything that is going to happen.  Things change when he meets Margaret (Kathryn Newton), a girl his own age who also is stuck in the time loop.  They begin spending time together and looking around their town for perfect moments of beauty which Mark documents each morning on a map (hence the title).  While Mark grows increasingly interested in finding a way to escape the temporal anomaly, Margaret is more reticent.  Mark is also interested in a romantic relationship which Margaret rebuffs.

Over the course of the movie, their are some interesting revelations and character growth I won’t spoil, but it ends up for making a very thoughtful and heartwarming film. With strong, nuanced performances by the lead actors (especially Newton), good storytelling, and editing, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a lot better than I expected and better than others have been giving it credit for.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)


Title: Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Release Date: November 19, 2021
Director: Jason Reitman
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Bron Creative | Ghost Corps | The Montecito Picture Company  Right of Way Films
Summary/Review:

The long awaited sequel to the original Ghostbusters franchise picks up in the present day.  Egon Spengler (the late Harold Ramis) has abandoned his friends and family to invest himself in a paranormal manifestation on a remote farm in Oklahoma.  After his death, his daughter Callie (Carrie Coon), who never knew her father and is dealing with abandonment issues, inherits the creepy farmhouse and moves there with her two children.  Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) is a scientifically-literate but socially awkward preteen while Trevor is good with cars and eager to have a girlfriend.  Soon enough they each uncover bits of pieces of their mysterious grandfather’s past and begin to figure out how to carry his final project.

The great thing about this movie is that it is stylistically not at all much like the original Ghostbusters.  It feels a lot like a Spielberg/Amblin 80s family adventure complete with unsupervised children getting into very dangerous situations. It’s also very efficient in moving the film along without spending too much time dwelling on the various discoveries or the inevitable callbacks.  The final act is probably the most “derivative” of the original Ghostbusters movie, although as the plot centers on loose ends from that movie it makes sense.

There are some great performances in this movie, especially Grace as Phoebe.  The cast is boosted by newcomer Logan Kim as Phoebe’s nerdy friend Podcast, Celeste O’Connor as Trevor’s co-worker and love interest Lucky, and Paul Rudd as Gary, a lazy summer school teacher and scientist who loves the Ghostbusters, who also becomes a love interest for Callie.  And it should be no big spoiler that the original cast of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts all return as their original characters, although not as much as you might expect.  It’s a great family/adventure/comedy movie and a loving tribute to the original film.

I also loved the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, which I think was bigger on laughs, but Ghostbusters: Afterlife is bigger on heart. Both are light years better than the awful Ghostbusters II which seems to have been ignored by the Afterlife filmmakers. Now, of course, we need a multiverse where the casts of both films as well as Filmation’s Ghostbusters come together to fight the biggest threat yet! (No, that would been awful idea, so if you’re a Hollywood producer looking for concepts to work with just pretend you didn’t see this).

Rating: ****