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: ***

Podcast of the Week Ending May 16


Decoder Ring :: Gotta Get Down on Friday

Breaking down the cultural phenomenon of the viral YouTube video “Friday” by Rebecca Black, a song that is so bad because it’s almost good.

Planet Money :: Episode 1,000

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been listening to this NPR economics podcast since the LAST global crisis of the Great Recession.  The 1000th episode breaks down how a podcast episode is made.

Radiolab :: Octomom

A fascinating study of a deep-water octopus species where the mother sits to brood her eggs for several years, starving to death in the process.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Pew Pew

The secrets of sound design in making Star Wars films.

What Next :: Decoding the Flood of COVID Data

Tips on how to evaluate what you’re hearing about COVID-19 and how it applies to you and your family.  Visit the COVID Explained website for more.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Comics Review: Star Wars (2015-2019)


Following on reading the Darth Vader comics series, I read all the books currently available in the standard Star Wars line.  The stories are set in the period between the destruction of the first Death Star and the events of The Empire Strikes Back. I was never clear how long it was supposed to be between the first two movies of the original trilogy, but apparently it canonically three years, same as the production time between movies.

I like these comics because it builds on the camaraderie among Luke, Leia, and Han from the first movie that we don’t get to see as much in the later movies as they are separated in The Empire Strikes Back and relationships have changed by Return of the Jedi.  It also fills in some details on Leia and Han’s growing romance, Luke developing his Jedi skills, and why the Rebellion is on its back foot in Hoth in ESB despite destroying the Death Star. Most of all, it’s just fun, old-fashioned serialized adventures as our favorite characters fight tit for tat with the Empire, with some goofy stuff thrown in.

Below are some quick thoughts on each volume.

 

Title:  Star Wars Vol. 1: Skywalker Strikes
Writer(s): Jason Aaron
Penciller(s): John Cassaday
Letterer(s): Chris Eliopoulos

Luke, Leia, and Han attempt to follow up on the destruction of the Death Star by attacking an Imperial weapons factory.  Things go wrong, and Luke has to go face-to-face with Darth Vader!  This is a gutsy move and yet it is done well and really works within the existing storylines.  Also, there’s some great C-3PO comedy.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 2: Showdown on Smuggler’s Moon
Writer(s): Jason Aaron
Penciller(s): Simone Bianchi & Stuart Immonen
Colorists: Simone Bianchi

Luke finds Obi-Wan’s journal and reads a story about Obi-Wan’s time on Tatooine watching over young Luke. These Obi-Wan journals stories become a recurring feature.  In the present day, Han and Leia are trapped on the “smuggler’s moon” and are rescued by Han’s wife?!? Meanwhile, Luke is captured and forced to battle in Grakkus the Hutt’s arena, trained by the mysterious Gamemaster who knows things about the Jedi.  After a strong start, the second volume is Star Wars comics veering into the silly.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 3: Rebel Jail
Writer(s): Jason Aaron & Kieron Gillen
Penciller(s): Mike Mayhew, Angel Unzueta, & Leinil Francis Yu
Cover artist: Terry Dodson

An uprising on a Rebel prison ship causes headaches for Leia who must ally with none other than Doctor Aphra. Aphra is the best character introduced in Darth Vader comics, so it’s good to see her again.  In a more comical plot, Han and Luke attempt to raise money for the Rebellion through gambling and smuggling.  The stories are entertaining, but the comics series still feels like it’s treading water after the great debut.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 4: Last Flight of the Harbinger
Writer(s): Jason Aaron & Chris Eliopoulos
Penciller(s): Chris Eliopoulos, Mike Mayhew
Jorge Molina
Cover artist: Mike Deodato, Jr.

The Rebels steal a star destroyer, but then have to fight a special ops team of stormtroopers, the SCAR Squad lead by Sergeant Kreel.  Also, more Obi-Wan adventures on Tatooine, and a cute R2-D2 story.  Good stuff.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 5: Yoda’s Secret War
Writer(s): Jason Aaron & Kelly Thompson
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca
Cover Artist: Stuart Immonen

R2-D2 goes off on a solo mission to rescue C-3PO. Stranded in his X-Wing, Luke reads another journal entry that tells a story of Yoda in the times before The Phantom Menace.  Yoda is drawn to a planet with warring children, and a mountain of stones made of the force? I don’t know, I like seeing a Yoda story, but this one doesn’t make much sense.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 6: Out Among the Stars
Writer(s): Jason Aaron & Jason Latour
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca
Cover Artist: Mike Mayhew

Luke and Leia get stranded on a desert island (on a deserted planet?) and spend time bonding as they work to escape. Sana and Lando pull a con, while Han and Chewie work for the Hutts.  And Artoo becomes the action hero who rescues Threepio!


Title:  Star Wars Vol. 7: The Ashes of Jedha
Writer(s): Kieron Gillen
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca

Kieron Gillen, writer of the Darth Vader comics, makes his first contribution to the Star Wars main line.  The story also interacts with story ideas from Rogue One, the planet partially destroyed by the Death Star and the surviving partisans.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 8: Mutiny at Mon Cala
Writer(s): Kieron Gillen
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca

In Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance is reliant on ships of the Mon Calamari and leaders like Admiral Akbar. This story shows how Leia plans to get the Mon Calamari to rise up against their Imperial oppressors, which involves a shape-shifter and an opera performance.


Title:  Star Wars Vol. 9: Hope Dies
Writer(s): Kieron Gillen & Cullen Bunn
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca

Seeming ally Queen Trios of Shu-Torun has been working with Darth Vader all along and has allowed the Empire to initiate a plan that could lead to the destruction of the entire Rebel fleet!


Title:  Star Wars Vol. 10: The Escape
Writer(s): Kieron Gillen
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca

With the Rebel fleet scattered through the galaxy, Luke, Leia, and Han end up trapped on a planet of isolationists and must convince them to help the cause.


Title:  Star Wars Vol. 11: The Scourging of Shu-Torun
Writer(s): Kieron Gillen
Penciller(s): Angel Unzueta & Andrea Broccardo

Leia devises a daring plan to take revenge on Queen Trios, and more importantly knock out a key source of resources for the Empire.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 12:  Rebels and Rogues
Writer(s): Greg Pak
Penciller(s): Phil Noto

Han and Leia are caught up in a noir mystery which involves Leia’s old flame. Luke tries to lure away the Empire from a strategic location. And Chewbacca and Threepio team up to destroy a planet before realizing it has an indigenous life form.

Book Review: The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher


Author: Carrie Fisher
TitleThe Princess Diarist
Narrator: Carrie Fisher, Billie Lourd
Publication Info: New York, NY : Penguin Audio, [2016]
Previously Read by the Same Author: Wishful Drinking
Summary/Review:

The late, great Carrie Fisher reflects on her life as it’s shaped by her most famous character, Princess Leia Organa. Fisher begins with growing up with her celebrity parents (and seeing their celebrity diminish) and not really wanting to go into acting.  Nevertheless, she gets a part in the movie Shampoo and enrolls in London’s Central School of Speech and Drama.

She tells the story of her Star Wars audition – which oddly enough was a 2-for-1 audition before George Lucas and Brian Depalma for both Star Wars and Carrie. What would the world be like if Carrie had played Carrie in Carrie? Her experience filming Star Wars which involved rising early to spend intimate hours with the hairdresser Pat to get the ridiculous buns.  She also relates that she and Harrison Ford had a fling even though he is much older and was already married at the time.

Despite the title, the book is mostly memoir rather than actual diaries, but a segment of Fisher’s diary is included at the time of her relationship with Ford, which she calls “Carrison.” It was quite a jarring shift to move from the Fisher’s recollections from 40-years later, filled with self-deprecating humor, to the raw emotion of her 19-year-old journals.  Oddly, this portion is read on the audiobook by her daughter, Billie Lourd, perhaps to give a younger voice to the journals, or maybe they just wanted to make her deeply uncomfortable (and the listener by proxy) reading about her mother’s sexual relations.

The later half of the book deals with life after Star Wars became a hit, starting with the whirlwind press junket Fisher, Ford, and Mark Hammil went on to promote their low-budge movie as it became an unprecedented phenomena.  Fisher remains awed by fans’ dedication to Leia and the weird interactions she has with them. She refers to participating in conventions where fans pay money and line up for autographs as “lap dances.”  And the text includes perhaps real or perhaps exaggerated conversations with fans.

Recommended Books:

Rating: ***

TV Review: The Mandalorian (2019)


Title: The Mandalorian
Release Date: 2019
Creator/Head Writer/Showrunner: Jon Favreau
Episodes: 8
Production Company:  Lucasfilm | Golem Productions
Summary/Review:

The Mandalorian is the flagship original TV series for the Disney+ streaming service, and the first live-action TV series to take place in the Star Wars universe. Set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the titular Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) is a bounty hunter and member of a sect who ritually make armor from Beskar steel and never remove their masks in the presence of others.

The Mandalorian derives it’s style from classic Western and samurai films.  I actually watched High Noon and Seven Samurai during this season, and was struck by the visual homages and even the similarity in music.  In this era of heavily serialized tv drama, The Mandalorian is refreshingly old-fashioned in it’s episodic nature, especially mid-season.  It reminds me of adventure tv series from the 70s and 80s, perhaps something produced by Glen A. Larson, or as I more facetiously noted, Here’s Boomer.

The Mandalorian was marketed as your basic show about an armored antihero kicking butt, basically aimed at the people who found The Last Jedi‘s questioning of the moral underpinning of the Star Wars story to be offensive. That was true for most of the first episode until it was revealed that the show is really about The Child, or as America’s sweetheart is more popularly known, “Baby Yoda.” The tiny, green puppet so thoroughly steals every seen they appear it in that I’ve taken to calling this The Baby Yoda Show.

Of course, let not undersell Pascal, who does a terrific job of acting while wearing a mask and saying very little.  The show is also full of a remarkable slate of guest actors including Carl Weathers, Werner Herzog (who I still can’t believe is in this show), Nick Nolte, Taika Waititi, Gina Carano, Amy Sedaris, Jake Cannavale, Bill Burr (who proves there is a Boston long ago and far away), Natalia Tena, Richard Ayoade, and Giancarlo Espisito.  With some regret, I have to admit that this is by leaps and bounds better than any other new Star Wars content released this year.  I look forward to Baby Yoda and his armored sidekick returning for another season.

Related Posts:

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

Continue reading “Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)”

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.

 

Star Wars Film Festival: Return of the Jedi (1983)p


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 Return of the Jedi, originally published February 29, 2016.

Title:  Return of the Jedi
Release Date: 1983
Director:  Richard Marquand
Summary/Review:

And so we conclude introducing the children to the classic trilogy of Star Wars films.  The kids enjoyed this and certainly got a lot more laughs than the previous two installments.  Return of the Jedi certainly does have more humor and a positive spirit of bonhomie that is a big tonal shift from Empire Strikes Back. On the other hand the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes have an undertone of menace I didn’t catch as a child (although at least one of my kids was spooked). The portions at Jabba’s palace really creeped me out as a kid, and they’re still pretty creepy (I didn’t recall just how gruesome it is when Leia chokes Jabba to death)

Over the years, Return of the Jedi has gotten a bad rap, but I loved it as a kid and I think it still holds up.  People criticize the Ewoks, but dammit, I love the Ewoks.  Not only are they cute, but the whole success of the Rebellion hinges on the fact that the Emperor is too narrow to foresee that a small, non-human species will ally with the Rebels and turn the tide of the battle.  

Of all the changes made for the Special Editions, this one fares the worst in my opinion.  Give me back my Ewok celebration song and the ghost of Sebastian Shaw! All things considered, it was a delight to revisit this series of childhood memories with my own kids.

Some stray post-rewatch thoughts:

  • In the prequels, Palpatine has a charming public persona and he even plays his “deformity” for sympathy. In Return of the Jedi we only see the cackling, controlling villain. I wonder if he maintained the charming persona for public appearances after declaring himself Emperor?
  • Leia has the fighting and tactical skills equal to the men around her, but her scene with Wicket W. Warrick shows her great diplomatic skills that Han, and even Luke, lack.
  • I’m still angry that Leia clearly remembers her mother and they still had Palme die in childbirth for no reason. I’m surprised Lucas didn’t edit that scene out when he stuck Hayden Christensen in.
  • Speaking of edits, I never noticed that freakin’ Jar Jar is shouting “Wesa free!” in the celebration scene on Naboo. 🙄
  • It never occurred to me how much Han is the comic relief character in this movie, probably cause Harrison Ford does it so well. Perhaps they should have cast Ford to play Jar Jar too.
    Rating: *****

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L8p7_SLzvU

 

 

 

Star Wars Film Festival: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


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 Empire Strikes Back, originally published February 22, 2016.

Title:  The Empire Strikes Back
Release Date: 1980
Director:   Irving Kushner
Summary/Review:

Still the best of the Star Wars films, allowing space for the characters to breath and grow and for the actors to show their chops, while still having intertwining action plots that come together at the end.  And it’s funny.  It certainly wasn’t satisfying as kid to have it just end with the good guys essentially losing and so much unresolved.  Watching this with my kids for the first time meant lots of questions, Yoda being scary, and Darth Vader being unexpectedly cool.

Rating: *****

Some Stray Post-Rewatch Thoughts:

  • I’d never cottoned on before that “The Imperial March” made its debut in this movie. And how impressive is it’s first use on the fleet of Star Destroyers!
  • Han is really creepy to Leila in this movie. I guess she does like scoundrels.
  • Watching so soon after the prequels’ CGI Yoda really emphasizes how much more lifelike and expressive is Frank Oz’s puppetry work.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96v4XraJEPI