Book Review: From a Certain Point of View: Star Wars by Various Authors


Author: 40 Authors
TitleFrom a Certain Point of View: Star Wars
Narrator: Multiple Narrators
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Summary/Review:

This book celebrated the 40th anniversary of Star Wars in 2017 with a collection of 40 original short stories by 43 authors. Each story is told from the perspective of a different character in the Star Wars universe, hence the title cribbing Obi-Wan’s famous line “From a certain point of view.”  The authors include a lot of well-known writers such as Rae Carson, Claudia Gray, Chuck Wendig, Wil Wheaton, Elizabeth Wein, Jeffrey Brown, Kieron Gillen, Nnedi Okorafor, Jason Fry, and Greg Rucka.  I suspect that if you are a bigger fan of science fiction/fantasy writing, you will recognize even more of the authors!

No character is too small to be a point of view character, thus there are tales told by droids, Jawas, Tusken raiders, bounty hunters, rebels of various ranks, stormtroopers, Imperial officers, a numerous other sentient beings.  A few bigger characters including Greedo, Obi-Wan, and Biggs get their stories as well as characters like Yoda, Palpatine, and Lando Calrissian who don’t even appear in the movie!  Perhaps the strangest story of all  is “Of MSE-6 and Men” by Glen Weldon, told from the perspective of a Death Star mouse droid and written in some kind of machine language, that tells the story of an ill-fated romance between a storm trooper and Grand Moff Tarkin.

Some stories are better than others, and I like it when the author takes a small character and builds a whole world around their life before and after their appearance in the film’s narrative.  Other stories are less successful because they basically just have the scenes and dialogues repeated from the movie interspersed with the thoughts of the point of view character.  The stories are arranged in sequence to the movie’s plot and things really get bogged down with five different stories about characters in the Mos Eisley cantina, and again during the Battle of Yavin.

Some of my favorite stories include:

  • “The Sith of Datawork” by Ken Liu, about an Imperial bureaucrat who is able to fix things in the records for the gunnery captain who failed to shoot at an escape pod.
  • “Laina”  by Wil Wheaton, which tells of a widowed rebel sending his young daughter away for her safety in a story which packs a lot of emotional punch.
  • “An Incident Report” by Daniel M. Lavery, in which Admiral Motti files a formal complaint against Darth Vader for force choking him.
  • “The Baptist” by Nnedi Okorafor is a life account of Omi, the creature that grabs Luke in the trash compactor.
  • “Time of Death” by Cavan Scott details Obi-Wan’s experience of joining with the Force immediately after his death.

I get why they wanted to go with 40 stories for the 40th anniversary, but this book could be improved with some judicious pruning.  Nevertheless, this is a fun book and I’m sure Star Wars fans will find something in it they like.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Men in Black (1997)


Title: Men in Black
Release Date: July 2, 1997
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Parkes/MacDonald Productions
Summary/Review:

Men in Black could’ve easily been “Ghostbusters with aliens” or just a star vehicle for Will Smith, but it turned out to be a whole lot more.  The movie draws upon the UFO conspiracy theory of government agents in dark suits who cover up alien encounters and more directly from The Men in Black comic book series based on the lore. I was impressed by the economy of the opening scenes in establishing the role Men in Black in policing refugee extraterrestrials on Earth (with a subtle political message about immigration built into it).  The rest of the film builds on the concept as we follow new recruit Agent J (Smith) learns from the grizzled veteran Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).

The stakes are high, the destruction of earth, but the conflict with the villain, a roach-like creature in a human skin named Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) is very down to earth. Linda Fiorentino fills out the cast as Laurel, a doctor in the city morgue who has her memory erased multiple times for discovering aliens on Earth.  The film has a lot of great sight gags and humor and Jones and Smith have a great chemistry together.  This is also a great New York City film where the Guggenheim Museums becomes the perfect setting for a foot chase and the 1964 World’s Fair New York Pavilion is home to flying saucers in disguise (with a cameo by my late, lamented Shea Stadium).

I never saw the Men in Black sequels, and I don’t know if I want to, but this original film stands the test of time. My kids liked it too. A recent podcast episode from Unspooled discusses Men in Black and the hosts get into the weeds of an interesting conversation of how this movie marked the end of an era for blockbuster films preceding our current comic book/superhero dominated film landscape.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004


Title: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Release Date: March 19, 2004
Director: Michel Gondry
Production Company: Anonymous Content | This is That
Summary/Review:

The premise of this film is made clear in the trailer: After ending their troubled relationship, Clementine (Kate Winslet) uses a service provided by a company called Lacuna to erase all memories she has of her ex-boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey).  When Joel discovers what she’s done, he decides to erase her from his memory as well.  The brilliance of the movie is that knowing this does not spoil the movie, and in fact the opening scenes defy the moviegoer’s expectations.  In fact, the movie plays with chronology to support the central idea of memory being lost. It all works in visually presenting a metaphor of how the mind works while Joel’s experience makes him realize that memories, even the bad ones, are what defines him.

Carrey and Winslet are great in their roles and their performance captures both the little things that are great about a romantic relationship as well as the little irritants that can build up and cause a relationship to fail.  The typically manic Carrey is reserved, even introverted as Joel, but even as the film’s straight man his comic instincts are well served, especially when he has to play his character as a child.

The supporting cast is mainly the crew of Lacuna who turn out to be a messed-up and unprofessional bunch.  Stan Fink (Mark Ruffalo) is the technician assigned to erasing Joel’s memory who uses the time to invite his girlfriend and Lacuna receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) over for marijuana and sex.  Mary meanwhile has a crush on Lacuna’s director Dr. Howard  Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) who has skeletons in his own closet.  And Patrick (Elijah Wood) is the creepiest of all, using knowledge gained from the procedure to pursue women.

This is an excellent movie and I’m glad I revisited it after many years. Bonus points for having significant scenes set on the frozen Charles River.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)


Title: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Release Date: April 3, 1968
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey as a kid, excited to see a science fiction classic.  I was not at all prepared to watch a slow-moving film with limited dialogue that touched upon themes of evolution and existentialism.  It left me feeling a way I couldn’t describe with words, somewhere between disturbed and confused.  Upon repeated viewings I was still confounded.

It’s been decades since the last time I watched 2001, yet it’s a movie I still think about a lot. So I was glad to revisit it as an adult with an appreciation for the the film’s cinematic innovations.  I am also in a place where I’m much more comfortable with watching something and not having to know what it “means.” The film is impressive from the very beginning with the shot of the earth from the moon, released to cinemas before astronauts got the same view for the first time on Apollo 8 later the same year. The effects used to create weightlessness are also terrific and I particularly like the scene in the airlock.

The opening segment, “The Dawn of Man,” which particularly bored me as a child went by quicker than I remembered.  It still feels like dioramas in the natural history museum have come to life, particularly since Kubrick shot it against backdrops rather than on location in Africa.  The “Star Gate” segment, however, goes on for far longer than I remembered.  Did hippies really even need to take hallucinogens before watching this?

The core of the movie is aboard the spacecraft Discovery One on a mission to Jupiter with astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).  They grow increasingly mistrustful of the intelligent computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) which leads to horror and tragedy.  The scene where Dave disconnects HAL’s circuits leading to HAL’s “death” is one of the most heartbreaking in film history even though it’s for a murderous computer.

In summation, 2001 is still a slow and “boring” film, but in a good way.  It’s predictions of the future seem way off since humans have not left low-earth orbit since 1972.  On the other hand, the corporate branding we see on everything seems spot on even if Pan-Am, Bell Telephone, and Howard Johnson’s restaurants didn’t make it to 2001.  The movie is stunning visually, and it will make you think about important topics even if you can never figure out the right answers.  This is definitely a movie I’d like to see on a big screen when I get the opportunity.

Rating: *****

 

Movie Review: The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021)


Title: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Release Date: April 23, 2021
Director: Mike Rianda
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Animation | Lord Miller Productions | One Cool Films
Summary/Review:

Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is a misfit kid who finds her passion in filmmaking and is excited to begin attending film school in California.  She’s often in conflict with her overprotective father Rick (Danny McBride) who doesn’t understand her artistic and technological interests.  In order to promote family bonding, Rick decides to take the whole family – including mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and dinosaur obsessed little brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) – on a cross-country drive to college.  While they’re en route, the Apple/Facebook-style company PAL introduces robot assistants who immediately rebel against humanity.  Only the Mitchell’s avoid capture and it’s up to them to fight the robot menace and come together as a family.

Overall, this movie feels very familiar (it’s the same basic plot of Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg-Nick Frost’s Cornetto trilogy) and has a lot of gags similar to other recent animated family adventures.  The Mitchells have a funny car and a funny dog.  And there’s deadpan dialogue like the PAL tech CEO saying ““It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent AI as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing.”  Despite the lack of originality the movie is very sweet and has some good, funny bits.  The animation is fluid and for added effects, other types of animation are overlaid on the computer animation.  Extra points for LGBTQ+ representation in the movie’s protagonist by having Katie be gay without that being a controversy in her family or playing into a romantic storyline. This is a good, fun movie suitable for the whole family.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Audio, 2021 
Summary/Review:

Picking up from Chaos Rising, Thrawn and his crew are cleaning up from the the last great threat to the Chiss Ascendancy.  But a new threat appears in the form of the Agbui who work as kind of conmen to infiltrate Chiss society and gin up conflict among the ruling families with hopes of provoking a civil war. Caregiver Thalias, sky-walker Che’ri, Admiral Ar’alani, and of course, Thrawn return for this middle novel of the trilogy.  But we also spend a lot of time with Captain Lakinda, an ambitious young officer from a minor family hoping to gain prestige for herself and her family.  Since Thrawn is inept at dealing with family infighting and politics, a lot depends on her loyalty to her family or the Chiss.  We also spend a lot of time with Haplif, the smarmy Agbui spy and his marks.

After reading so many Thrawn novels, I finally made the connection that Thrawn is a lot like Sherlock Holmes.  He sees things that others cannot see and then explains it to the point of view characters.  I like that this novel builds the world of the Chaos with seemingly a whole galaxy of planets and alien races seperate from the rest of the Star Wars universe (who it easy to forget are engaged in the Clone Wars at the same time as this novel).  However, it does get a bit confusing keeping all the characters and the families, planets, races, et al straight, but I’m not the most attentive audiobook listener. Nevertheless, this is a fun and engaging story.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The World’s End (2013)


Title: The World’s End
Release Date: 19 July 2013
Director: Edgar Wright
Production Company: Relativity Media | StudioCanal | Working Title Films | Big Talk Pictures | Dentsu
Summary/Review: After Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, this is the third in the trilogy of Three Flavours Cornetto genre comedies directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Pegg plays Gary King, a 40-year-old manchild whose greatest memory is the night in 1990 when he finished school and did a famous pub crawl in his hometown of Newton Haven. Since Gary and his friends made it only to 9 of the 12 pubs, he feels that he will only find satisfaction by getting the group back together for another try.  His friends are now all successful professionals in stark contrast to Gary’s endless childhood.  The group includes Andy (Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and they are also joined by Steven’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike).

The movie is good contrast of youthful ambitions to middle-age concessions.  Amid the great comic moments are some really great moments of these men opening their hearts about their troubled lives.  And if that wasn’t enough, there is the strange alien feeling of returning to one’s childhood hometown to find that everything seems different and no one remembers you.  In the case of this movie, it’s because Newton Haven has been taken over by actually aliens who have replaced the populace with android duplicates.

The movie blends together the science fiction story perfectly with the comedic beats and heartfelt moments.  It also has a great soundtrack of early 90s Madchester tunes, including the perfect deployment of Primal Scream’s “Loaded” in the denouement. If I have one criticism it may be the cast is too large and a friend group of 3 or 4 may have been more manageable than 5.  But it’s a small criticism in highly-entertaining movie that may just be my favorite of the trilogy.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Loki (2021)


Title: Loki
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Michael Waldron
Director: Kate Herron
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of Loki, please don’t read

This Disney+ series picks up from a scene in Avengers: Endgame when the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uses the Tesseract to escape the Avengers, and over six episodes ends up in a completely different place that appears to be setting up the next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Loki is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that operates out its massive mid-century modern headquarters to maintain the Sacred Timeline by “pruning” branches from the timeline.

Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) condemns Loki to be erased from existence but Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) convinces her to allow Loki help investigate another Loki variant who has killed several time agents.  They find the Loki variant and discover it is a woman who uses the alias Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Loki and Sylvie end up teaming up and begin uncovering the dark truths behind the TVA. The final episode avoids the typical Marvel battle for a quieter conversation with the TVA’s creator He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).  As someone who hasn’t read 60 years of Marvel Comics, I found it a bit frustrating to not be aware of the identity behind He Who Remains until after I read reviews of the episode, but he appears to be setting up to be the MCU’s next Thanos-level threat.

Loki is another excellent limited series that takes storytelling to new and interesting places.  The acting is on point with Hiddleston getting a chance to show his ranges as Loki and Di Martino is a great addition.  I also really enjoy the style of the TVA and the self-referential humor.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)


Title: Sorry to Bother You
Release Date:  July 6, 2018
Director: Boots Riley
Production Company: Significant Productions | MNM Creative | MACRO | Cinereach | The Space Program | Annapurna Pictures
Summary/Review:

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young man, down on his luck, and going through an existential crisis when he starts a job at a telemarketing company.  He learns that to make successful sales he has to use a “white voice” (ironically, his managers always talk in “Black voice” when pumping up the employees in meetings).  Soon he’s promoted to the Power Caller department where he makes a fortune selling unethical products and services at the same time his friends and coworkers from the lower floors are organizing a strike. Underlying everything is the growth of a new company called WorryFree that provides cheap labor by signing people to lifetime contracts and housing them in factories (which opponents call slave labor).

The movie has a stellar cast supporting Stanfield. Tessa Thompson plays his girlfriend Detroit, who is a performance artist and underground activist. Steven Yuen is a labor organizer named Squeeze. And Omari Hardwick plays the mysterious Mr. _____, Cash’s Power Caller manager.  Danny Glover and Forest Whitaker also appear in small roles, and Rosario Dawson performs a voice.

I was not prepared for this movie.  I went in expecting a satirical comedy more than anything else but ended up feeling more disturbed than anything else.  Granted, this movie is supposed to be disturbing, but I wasn’t expecting creepiness approaching Get Out levels.  And that was before the scenes of full-on body horror!  I also felt the movie had too many targets.  While the satire of the corporate world and capitalist exploitation works, I felt the gags about online memes, reality tv, and performance art fell flat.  Still this is a good first film for Boots Riley and I look forward to seeing what he’ll put out next.  Oh and the music by Riley’s band The Coup and tUnE-yArDs is perfect for this movie.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Arrival (2016)


In the final installment of my miniseries of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s, the aliens come and discover us!

Title: Arrival 
Release Date: November 11, 2016
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Production Company: FilmNation Entertainment | Lava Bear Films | 21 Laps Entertainment
Summary/Review:

A dozen strange spacecraft arrive in various parts of the Earth.  One of them is in the United States in a remote part of Montana.  The US Army recruits Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned professor of linguistics, to help them learn the aliens’ language so they can communicate.  With the help of physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Dr. Banks races to create some rudimentary form of communication the giant squid-like creatures before the more military-minded in the US and abroad take defensive action.

I like how this movie has a slow build.  We see the arrival of the alien ships from Banks’ perspective as it goes from a news story that interrupts her work day to something she’s personally involved in. The design of the ship and how the alien “heptapods” interact with the human scientists has brings a nice level of strangeness.  I’m sure actual linguists can poke lots of holes in how linguistics is used in the movie, but it works as a plot device for novices like me.

The basic premise of the film is one that goes back at least to The Day the Earth Stood Still, in that aliens are trying to help humanity from our own self-destruction.  Having recently watched Gravity and Interstellar, I also see a lot of common plot points, expressing our present-day concerns.  One weird overlap between Arrival and Gravity is that the lead woman character is grieving the death of a daughter (although that plays into a plot twist in Arrival).  The movie rests on a terrific performance by Amy Adams and the interesting direction and design of the spacecraft and aliens.  The rest of the cast doesn’t get to do much and various subplots are kind of “meh,” which keeps this from being a great film, but it’s still a pretty good one.

Rating: ***